A pioneering seabird tracking project has revealed the amazing distances that seabirds will travel to find food.
Over five years, RSPB researchers fitted GPS tags to more than 1,300 kittiwakes, shags, razorbills and guillemots from 29 colonies around the UK and Ireland. Whenever these birds left the cliffs in search of food, the tiny electronic tags stored data on everywhere they went. Once the scientists had recovered the tags and downloaded the data, they were astonished at what they discovered.
A unique map of seabird foraging habits
The tracking data revealed that the four species forage across at least 1.5 million square km of sea – an area three times the size of Spain. The researchers used this data to create a computer model for each species, so that important areas for seabird colonies where no tracking took place could also be predicted. For the first time, we know which areas of the sea are important feeding grounds for seabirds.
Informing the future of marine conservation
This new level of understanding has arrived at a critical time. As the UK prepares to leave the EU, government offices are considering the future of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs); these are the equivalent of nature reserves at sea, where harmful human activities are restricted – including fishing, shipping, and windfarm development.
The UK administrations are examining how effective the current protected sites are for saving seabirds, as well as planning the UK’s future fisheries policy, once the UK is outside of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.
Our global responsibility for seabirds
Seabirds are one of the most endangered groups of birds in the world, partly due to the impacts of climate change and fishing. The UK is home to internationally important populations of breeding seabirds, so we have a global responsibility to protect them.
Of the four species studied, kittiwake and shag numbers have declined by 71% and 62% respectively in the last 25 years and they are now on the red list of Birds of Conservation Concern.
Thanks to the results from this research and the methods used, researchers will be able to provide better evidence to support the case for new MPAs. These results will also help improve how we plan for development work at sea to reduce conflicts between the needs of our seabirds and human activities at sea.