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Albatrosses and petrels: roadmap to protect the most threatened sea birds at sea

Albatrosses and petrels spend about 39% of their life cycle on the high seas, a large global marine area that goes beyond the field of national and international jurisdictions of nature protection. Given this lack of legal protection, in order to preserve populations of these marine birds –one of the most endangered bird groups worldwide–, it will be decisive to improve the governance of high sea territory and apply with no exception the current protection treaties.
This is one of the main conclusions in a study published in the journal Science Advances, which counts on the participation of the Seabird Ecology Group of the Faculty of Biology and the Biodiversity Research Institute (IRBio) of the UB, led by Professor Jacob González-Solís.
The research, led by expert Martin Beal, from the University Institute of Lisbon (Portugal), counts on the participation of research teams of nearly sixty international centers and institutions, among which are BirdLife International, SEO/Birdlife, the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies (IMEDEA-UIB-CSIC), the Center for Advanced Studies of Blanes (CEAB-CSIC), the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (United Kingdom), and the National Institute of Polar Research (Japan), among others.
Albatrosses and petrels: high sea globetrotters
Albatrosses and petrels are part of the seabird order of procellariforms, with 124 species distributed around the oceans worldwide. About 50% of these species are endangered due to the introduction of invasive species in breeding colonies, accidental bycatch in fisheries, overfishing, light pollution, climate change, and contamination. Also, vital strategies of these marine birds (long developmental cycle, delayed sexual maturity, low fertility, loyalty to breeding areas, etc.) make them extremely vulnerable to the threats both at sea and land.
“Currently, one of the most harmed seabirds due to the impact of fishing activities is the Balearic shearwater (Puffinus mauretanicus), an endemic species of the Mediterranean and listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)”, notes Professor Jacob González-Solís, member of the Department of Evolutionary Biology, Ecology and Environmental Sciences of the UB.
In the study, experts followed 5,775 birds of 39 species of procellariform birds in different continents through geolocators or GPS so small that some weighted less than a gram. Results show these marine birds move regularly to high sea areas where no nation can guarantee their conservation suitably.
Seabirds like albatrosses are the ultimate globetrotters”, notes researcher Martin Beal, lead author of the study. “But this incredible lifestyle makes them vulnerable to threats in places where legal protection is inadequate”.
According to the co-author, Maria Dias, from BirdLife International, “negative interactions with fisheries are particularly serious in international waters because there is less monitoring of industry practices and compliance with regulations. Also, beyond fish there is currently no global legal framework for addressing the conservation of biodiversity in the high seas”.
Protecting seabirds beyond frontiers
Improving the management of reproductive populations of each country and the governance of high sea territories will be essential to preserve populations of albatrosses and petrels in the future. The United Kingdom, France, New Zealand, Australia and South-Africa are counties that concentrate the highest richness of reproductive species of albatrosses and petrels. Spain holds a distinguished position in this ranking –9th– and specially for the decisive reproductive areas for these species in the Balearic and the Canary Islands.
“At a global scale, current treaties and guidelines need to be enforced in international forums such as the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP), or the Commissino for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), as well as developing international agreements on the conservation and use of biological marine biodiversity, beyond national jurisdictions”, states Jacob González-Solís.
The roadmap to improve the conservation of birds and petrels mentions the need for promoting bilateral treaties among distant countries such as Japan, Australia and Russia, in order to make sure the migratory species receive the necessary protection over their entire life cycle.
From the Mediterranean to Namibia and Brazil
The UB-IRBio team focused on the remote monitoring of the Scopoli’s shearwater (Calonectris diomedea), Cory’s shearwater (C. borealis) and Cape Verde shearwater (C. edwardsii), one of the seabirds that reproduces in the Balearic Islands, Canary Islands and Cape Verde, respectively.
“Conservation of endangered species such as the Balearic shearwater will depend on the good management by Balearic, Catalan and Spansih administrations, but also from those countries where these birds fly to outside their reproductive period, specially France and Portugal”, notes lecturer Raül Ramos (UB-IRBio). Moreover, shearwaters that reproduce in the Balearic Islands and Canary Islands have their wintering areas in front of the coasts of Western Sahara, Brazil, Namibia and South-Africa, among other countries. “In order to guarantee their survival –the researcher adds–, it is fundamental for those countries to protect them while the birds are in their jurisdictional territory”.
Currently, Spain is a signatory of the CMS, ACAP and CCAMLR international agreements. Moreover, it is also committed to the EU Action Plan for the Reduction of Incidental Catches of Seabirds in Fishing Gears (2012), the Common Fisheries Policy, the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR), and the guidelines of Regional Fishing Organizations (RFO), which include the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM).
"However, despite knowing that the longline fishery is currently the main cause of the decline of the Balearic, Scopoli’s and Mediterranean shearwaters, the fisheries that currently operate in the Spanish territory are still working without any regulation that forces fishermen to minimize accidental catches of shearwaters and other seabirds”, warn the experts.

                                                                   Images: Jacob González-Solís and Raül Ramos (UB-IRBio)
Source: PressUB