Seabird Struggles

Fans of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge will know that ancient mariners once thought that spying an albatross foretold a safe sea voyage. But if that’s true, seafarers may be in for a rough future. Nearly 100 species of marine birds are threatened with extinction, new research suggests. And albatrosses — as well as penguins — seem to be in particularly bad shape.

When it comes to the albatross, Coleridge may not have been too far off. Seabirds are, in fact, often omens, say John Croxall of the conservation group BirdLife International and colleagues. Just not of safe travels. Instead, scientists have long relied on seabirds, from gliding albatrosses to loons, to gauge the health of the ocean. That includes how much food, including fish or smaller animals like krill, swims hidden in the seas. Still, researchers have yet to take on a comprehensive assessment of the status of seabirds worldwide, the group argues.

To do just that, Croxall and colleagues turned to data pulled together by BirdLife International for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They assessed the current success–or lack thereof–of 346 bird species, all of which depend on the seas for sustenance or a place to float.

The results don’t look good, the team reports in Bird Conservation International. A staggering 28%, or 97, of the birds are considered threatened by the IUCN, meaning their populations face growing dangers, usually from human actions. Three of the birds had already disappeared from the oceans entirely, including two species of petrel, albatross relatives. That puts marine flyers in worse shape than any other bird group, including parrots, 26% of which are currently threatened. And the situation seems to be getting worse. Close to 50% of the seabird species are dwindling even today, Croxall’s team says.

The birds face threats from many angles. Just over 40% of all seabird species regularly run afoul of fishermen, accidentally getting tangled up in trailing nets. Rats, feral cats and other invasive animals also frequently swallow eggs and chicks hidden onshore. The solution, the researchers argue, is to protect birds where they’re most vulnerable–mostly on popular breeding beaches, islands and other land locales. They identified 1,820 such sites in, among other nations, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and in the U.S. and Canada. Here’s hoping this study brings seabirds some good luck. – Daniel Strain | March 9, 2012

Source: Croxall JP et al. (2012) Seabird conservation status, threats and priority actions: a global assessment. Bird Conservation International. . DOI:10.1017/S0959270912000020

Image © Richard Lindie |