Macaroni penguin with tracking device by A ShefferSeabirds are arguably the most threatened group of birds on the planet and conservation scientists all around the planet are working to understand how we can better protect this group of animals. Many studies involve tracking the movements of these highly mobile birds using a suite of tracking technology (telemetry). CEED recently joined forces and BirdLife International to run a workshop on the use of tracking data to define marine protected areas (MPAs). The workshop formed part of the 2nd World Seabird Conference in Cape Town, South Africa held in October 2015.

Seabird declines are being driven by a range of threats both on land and at sea. On land, nests are raided by invasive species such as rats and cats, and at sea climate shifts and fishing reduce fish stocks and the availability of food. Seabirds are also often snared in the fishing gear being deployed by boats (it’s estimated around a million seabirds die this way every year). The long-lived nature of many seabird species(some individuals live to over 50 years) make them fragile and slow to recover leaving many on the brink of extinction.

“Marine Protected Areas are one of the tools needed to reverse declines in seabird species,” says Dr Jennifer McGowan, a CEED researcher and one of the organisers of the workshop. “MPAs can be an effective in a number of ways such as by protecting seabird prey and reducing bycatch mortality (when individuals die as a result of entanglement in gear while opportunistically foraging on bait or discards from fishing vessels or take baited hooks).”

As nations race to meet the goal of establishing 10% of their territorial waters as marine protected areas by 2020 (Aichi target 11), the ‘game is on’ to ensure those protected areas are actually conserving threatened seabird species.

“There is an opportunity and need for researchers and conservationists working on seabird conservation to communicate what the seabird conservation priorities are,” says McGowan. “There’s a need to make data available to the global effort to design networks of MPAs.

“Satellite tracking is a technique used to study animal ecology and involves attaching small devices to individual seabirds that record and transmit information on where birds go and what they do while at sea.  

“Much data is now stored in the Tracking Ocean Wanderers database, an online repository of tracking data hosted by BirdLife International. The database holds information for over 100 seabird species contributed by 150 researchers. Now holding over 5 million data points, it’s a key tool for seabird conservation.”

Seabirds, like migratory waders, often require multiple distribution maps that reflect their feeding preferences in different seasons and age classes. Indeed much of the hard won data collected by seabird ecologists can inform these maps and the vast majority of the talks at the conference presented new insights on species distributions from tracked individuals around the world.

“Our workshop was attended by roughly 150 conference participants,” says McGowan. “They ranged from senior scientists to students and NGO representatives.”

The broader discussion, led by Dr Ben Lascelles from BirdLife International, illustrated the myriad challenges seabird ecologists face in bridging the science-policy-implementation gap. One successful example is the Natura 2000 network, the cornerstone of the European Union’s biodiversity policy, where Special Protection Areas (SPAs) are designated specifically for seabirds under the program’s Birds Directive. Seabird tracking studies have been instrumental in building the evidence base for where SPAs should be designated. However, most other regions lack seabird-focused policies that safeguard important habitats at-sea. Therefore, seabirds and their advocates must contend with all other forms of biodiversity and human uses to ensure these threatened species get the protection they require.

“One of the key challenges for the future is how to ensure the wealth of ecological knowledge derived from telemetry-studies is used to establish a global networks of MPAs that can maximise benefits to seabirds,” says McGowan. “This will require new collaborations, communications and science to enable this research to lead to practical conservation actions.”

Following the workshop, CEED will continue to work with BirdLife International and the seabird community at-large to assist with conserving these global ‘ocean sentinels’. 

More info: Jennifer McGowan (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Image: Macaroni penguin with tracking device  (By A. Sheffer)