The world’s most threatened seabirds face some of their greatest risks when feeding in Irish waters, according to a new study by researchers at University College, Cork.
The research team, from the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science, and the Environmental Research Institute, discovered that many far-ranging seabird species have very low conservation protection in British and Irish waters. These include birds like the fulmar (tube-nosed seabirds who superficially resemble gulls, but are readily distinguished by their flight on stiff wings, and their tube noses. They are long-lived for birds, living for up to 40 years) and gannet (large, white birds with yellowish heads, black-tipped wings and long bills; “Gannet” is derived from Old English ganot “strong or masculine”).
This is a cause for concern for seabird populations in Ireland, as they already face multiple impacts from fisheries by-catch, and oil and plastic pollution. However, given the large areas of sea that many of these birds cover, it can be difficult to find the best way to protect them. The study, published in the Journal of Biological Conservation in July, used data from multiple sources to create maps predicting where all 25 seabird species breeding in Britain and Ireland are likely to be located while feeding at sea. This allowed the researchers to identify high-density hotspots, and the most important areas used by multiple species. The researchers then compared the map to the established Marine Protected Areas, and found alarming gaps in coverage.
Lead author on the study is Emma Critchley, who said, “its unique location at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean means Ireland is a particularly important habitat for many far-ranging seabird species. Our shores are home to over 80% of the European population of Manx shearwaters (medium-sized shearwaters in the seabird family Procellariidae) but just 10% of these birds are covered by protected areas when feeding at sea. The Atlantic puffin is one of our most endangered species; however, only 2-% of the population at sea is covered by Marine Protected Areas.”