Our seabirds need our support

Guide
View around the edge of a cliffside, to a kittiwake perched on a nest on the rocks

Aren’t we lucky? An incredible eight million breeding seabirds call Britain’s unique coastal habitats home, and many more stop over on their lengthy migrations. These seabird species have been hauling up on our cliffs, bobbing on our waves, and deep diving into the blue for thousands of years. They’ve adapted the skills, diets, and habits to live long and happy lives here.

View around the edge of a cliffside, to a kittiwake perched on a nest on the rocks

Over time, our little islands have become a sanctuary for some of the largest and most important colonies in the world. 

Whether it's the soft cry of a kittiwake, the delicate dive of a common tern, or the outline of a distant cormorant coming up for air: we can’t imagine our oceans without them. 

But today, our seabirds are struggling. Out of the 25 different species breeding here in the UK, 24 have plummeted to Red or Amber status on the UK list of Birds of Conservation Concern. In 2012, the government promised to reach ‘Good Environmental Status’ of our seas by 2020. Yet, out of 15 indicators, the UK has failed to meet 11. And the red flags are well and truly waving, seabird decline is worse than in 2012.

Our wonderful waters are under threat, and our spectacular seabirds really need us. So, we’re happy that each of the UK countries have now committed to deliver a Seabird Conservation Strategy. But we need them to be ambitious, so that we can take direct action to recover and strengthen our colonies in the face of mounting pressures. Together, let’s halt the worsening condition of our seas and demand a secure future for our winged neighbours.
 
But where do we start? Well, take a look at the five key threats to seabird success, as well as some actionable steps we can take right now. Let’s begin to turn the tide together. 

1

Things are heating up 

 
Ok, this one’s a biggie – to put it lightly. Climate change is the greatest long-term threat to us and our wildlife.

Climate change poses two main threats to seabirds. The first is a rise in extreme weather: high winds that chill eggs, floods that drench feathers, or storms which destroy entire habitats. For any of our seabirds, these bizarre weather events cause havoc for breeding and foraging. 

The second threat of climate change is food availability. As our waters heat up, the new conditions aren’t right for some of the small prey our birds have adapted to thrive on, such as sandeels. Fewer small, oil-rich, fish mean our seabirds are going hungry.

Our seabirds face mounting difficulties linked to climate change, and the impacts are loud and clear. Up and down our coasts, from guillemots to arctic terns, you can link breeding failures to climate change or its impacts.

But it’s not too late to change our course. Together we must demand ambitious action to address the nature and climate emergency, so our seabirds aren’t left high and dry. 

Learn more about how climate change is affecting our seabirds here.

2

Plenty more fish in the sea? 

While our beloved puffins aren’t the most graceful flyers, they are very agile when it comes to catching their dinner. Puffins can dive 60m underwater in search of sandeel and can carry around ten at once. But this time, like the last time, there are no sandeels in sight.

The difficult truth is - more and more chicks across the UK are starving, and many other birds won’t be strong enough to breed at all. From sardines to sprats, across the British Isles our ‘forage fish’ (the staple fish near the bottom of the food chain) are disappearing.

That’s because forage fish populations, already disrupted by climate change, are facing another struggle: commercial overfishing.

Forage fish play a key role in marine food webs as a highly nutritious staple which help to fill up our hardworking hunters. Less available food means you’ll see fewer plump puffins and carefree kittiwakes on our coasts. Currently, unsustainable commercial fishing is a Goliath our birds can’t compete with.

But this doesn’t have to be the story. We can call for better management of forage fisheries and give these seabirds a fighting chance. Together, we can demand the closure of commercial sandeel fisheries around the UK and push for the sustainable management of fishing for other prey species.

Learn more about fisheries here.

3

Begone bycatch! 

Gliding through the skies, the endangered fulmar spots a glimmer beneath the waves. Finally, it's found its dinner and expertly dives towards it. But, like many other fulmars, the bird never reappears, trapped on the fishing nets and hooks that looked like prey. It’s an all-too-common story.

What you may think is a far-off problem, is happening in our own seas. Some of the UK’s most dazzling divers are struggling to keep their heads above water. Their hunting talents become fatal when faced with some of Britain’s large-scale fishing equipment.

In 2020, the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs estimated between 2,200 and 9,100 northern fulmars and 1,800-3,300 guillemots are killed each year as bycatch. However, these estimates are likely just the tip of the iceberg in terms of casualty numbers as tracking the problem isn’t easy.

We need to make sure our vulnerable seabirds don’t get tangled into extinction, and bycatch is a problem we all want to wave bye bye to. Working directly with the fishing industries and governments, we can find and solve problems together.

We are finding practical solutions that work for everybody. For instance, fishing at night reduces the deaths of our daytime hunters and adding weights to hooks means they sink out of reach faster. We’ve proved that accidental deaths by fishing gear don’t need to happen.

You can find out more about how bycatch is a conservation success story "waiting to happen" here.
 

4

Unwelcome guests

If you explore any of Britain’s islands this spring, you may be lucky enough to glimpse a Manx shearwater gliding across the water. In the past, sailors mistook their midnight wails for those of trolls and witches. But today, Manx shearwaters have their own fears about things that go bump in the night.

The accidental introduction of rats, ferrets, and other invasive species into isolated habitats has left our seabirds open to attack. Places where animals have evolved without predators, such as Britain’s islands, struggle to adapt quick enough to the newcomers’ arrival and the habitat’s intricate food web falls apart. Burrowing birds like the Manx shearwater or storm petrel are easy targets, and slow reproducing bird numbers may never recover from an attack. 

Aside from turning the existing species into their prey, the arrivals can compete for dwindling resources, introduce new diseases or wipe out genetic diversity through interbreeding. You can learn more about invasive non-native species here.

With your help, we can prevent the spread of invasive species on our key seabird islands and demand increased biosecurity measures, so our vulnerable seabirds don’t become sitting ducks. Learn more about our national and international policy and legislation here.

5

Offshore obstacles 

We welcome plans for the decarbonisation of energy systems, which will be benefit all types of sea life. But before we expand further, it’s high time we think about how poorly planned offshore developments might affect the lives of our marine friends. So far, our approach to offshore renewables may be leading to further biodiversity loss.

Across the UK, offshore renewables are being built without the needed environmental considerations and are leading to the preventable loss of sea life. Currently, there is a lack of information on the widespread effects of these structures and what to do about their impacts. Without forward-thinking plans, we select ill-suited sites and pass the risk to our already vulnerable seafaring species.

Kittiwakes, which fly thousands of miles, are one victim of the turbine blades which slice through established flight paths. Unfortunately for them and many other seabirds, disturbance, habitat loss, blocked flight pathways and loss of foraging habitats are all part and parcel of the current developments.

But, if we plan with marine life in mind, we will all reap the rewards. If we pick the right sites and strive to compensate for after-effects, we can work in harmony with nature towards a brighter, less carbon-filled future. And by introducing protected foraging sites, we can make sure our seabirds always have a safe place to eat. Learn more about marine planning here.

This World Oceans Day, let’s hold our governments to their pledge and act now for our sensational seabirds. Ready to defend our waters? You can donate here.