Henderson Island, an assortment of plastic rubbish that was washed up on the coast, British Overseas Territory

The threats to our sealife

Our oceans are under more pressure than ever before.

The damage to our seas

We scour the seabed, build in the sea, dump our waste in it, and harvest its riches - often with little thought for the future.

Our seas are rich in wildlife, yet many of our precious habitats and species are under threat, or in decline, because of these activities.

From declines in availability of food, to competition for space with development and lethal entanglement in marine litter and fishing gear, our seabirds face a daily battle to survive.

These ever-increasing pressures are putting animals such as magnificent basking sharks, delicate cold water corals, exotic seahorses and the 26 species of seabird that nest along our coastline, at risk.

In short, our marine wildlife is amazing, but we are pushing our seas to their limits.

The peat beds at Titchwell Marsh RSPB reserve. Norfolk, England.

Seas vulnerable to exploitation

For centuries, the seas have been used as a source of food and a highway for shipping.

Fishing can be one of the most damaging activities in the marine environment. Over-fishing leads to the depletion of fish stocks, while some fishing methods damage seabed habitats and trap and drown unsuspecting animals, such as seabirds, seals, turtles and dolphins.

Shipping also creates pollution and there is the risk of oil spills from accidents, while rubbish discarded overboard can end up in the stomachs of marine animals or entangling seabirds.

The UK has come to depend on fossil fuels, such as oil and gas, which are extracted from under the seabed. This has led to the building of offshore platforms and seabed pipelines. While recent improvements have been made to counteract and eliminate the pollution impacts from this exploitation, it doesn't mean that accidents don't still happen.

And there are fresh challenges for our marine environment on the horizon as we look to the sea to provide increasing renewable energy and recreational opportunities.

To ensure that our coast continues to be rich in wildlife, all these different uses need to be carefully managed and balanced.

Urgent protection needed

New laws in England, Wales and Scotland provide a full range of legal tools for better protection and management of our seas, ensuring that our activities and developments at sea are not pushing the marine environment to, or past, its limits.

Because our seas are so important, and our wildlife so vibrant, we are working hard to ensure that these laws protect all marine wildlife and seabirds.

We are also continuing our campaign in Northern Ireland to deliver the necessary legislation to protect marine wildlife in their waters.

 Teenagers participating in practical conservation work on Mersehead RSPB Reserve

What is happening in the marine food chain?

With millions of seabirds nesting on our coast each year - many in internationally important numbers - we are Europe's seabird metropolis.

With such outstanding importance comes a great responsibility for us to protect these wonderful birds.

Seabird fortunes in recent years have varied from species to species and across the country. Why are some species thriving while others struggle?

We don't have all the answers – the marine environment is complex – but we are beginning to appreciate some of the subtle connections holding the marine food web together, and the implications for seabirds of disturbing the natural balance...

Surface-feeding birds

  • Kittiwakes and terns can only dive to about one metre, so they don't have the luxury of seeking fish at greater depths if their staple diet of sandeels and sprats is in short supply.
  • 1°C warmer - Warming of the sea by just one degree Celsius allows warm water plankton to move in and replace the more nutritious cold water plankton that provide food for the sprats and sandeels that seabirds need.

Deep sea divers

Many seabirds demonstrate impressive feats of diving. These birds have access to more species of fish than the surface feeders.

  • Puffins - In times of sandeel and sprat shortage in the recent past, seabirds have resorted to less nutritious and leathery pipefish, which can choke their chicks.
  • Guillemots and razorbills - The gold medal winners when it comes to diving. Guillemots can plunge to an impressive 120 metres.

What can we do about it?

Firstly, we need to continue to do everything we can, to deal with climate change. Business as usual isn't an option.

We also need to ensure the best conditions possible for marine wildlife to adapt to an already changing environment – not only as the result of climate change, but from other human impacts too. This means:

Ensuring that all the most important areas for our seabirds and other marine life – from breeding to feeding – are formally protected on land and at sea, by an effective and well-managed network of sites. 

Protecting other sensitive areas, and carefully controlling the cumulative effects of a variety of industries through the new marine planning systems in England, Wales and Scotland – and hopefully in Northern Ireland soon.

Dealing with some of the land-based threats to seabirds, including predation by invasive non-native predators, such as rats and mink.

Wave Climate Change march, London December 5, 2009