Tracking seabirds for conservation

A Macaroni penguin with attached tracking device. (Image by A Sheffer)

A Macaroni penguin with attached tracking device. (Image by A Sheffer)

Seabirds are arguably the most threatened group of birds on the planet and conservation scientists all around the planet are working to understand how we can better protect this group of animals. Many studies involve tracking the movements of these highly mobile birds using a suite of tracking technology (telemetry). CEED recently joined forces with BirdLife International to run a workshop on the use of tracking data to define marine protected areas (MPAs). The workshop formed part of the 2nd World Seabird Conference in Cape Town, South Africa held in October 2015. Around 150 people attended the workshop. Participants ranged from senior scientists to students and NGO representatives.

Seabird declines are being driven by a range of threats both on land and at sea. On land, nests are raided by invasive species such as rats and cats, and at sea climate shifts and fishing reduce fish stocks and the availability of food. Seabirds are also often snared in the fishing gear being deployed by boats (it’s estimated around a million seabirds die this way every year).

“Marine Protected Areas are one of the tools needed to reverse declines in seabird species,” says CEED’s Jennifer McGowan, one of the organisers of the workshop. “MPAs can be an effective in a number of ways such as by protecting seabird prey and reducing bycatch mortality (when individuals die in fishing gear).”

As nations race to meet the goal of establishing 10% of their territorial waters as marine protected areas by 2020 (Aichi target 11), the ‘game is on’ to ensure those protected areas are actually conserving threatened seabird species.

“There is an opportunity and need for researchers and conservationists working on seabird conservation to communicate what the priorities are,” says McGowan. “There’s a need to make data available to the global effort to design networks of MPAs.

“Much data is now stored in the Tracking Ocean Wanderers database, an online repository of tracking data hosted by BirdLife International. The database holds information for over 100 seabird species. It is a key tool for seabird conservation.”

Seabirds, like migratory waders, often require multiple distribution maps that reflect their feeding preferences in different seasons and age classes. Indeed much of the hard won data collected by seabird ecologists can inform these maps and the vast majority of the talks at the conference presented new insights on species distributions.

“One of the key challenges for the future is how to ensure the wealth of ecological knowledge derived from telemetry-studies is used to establish a global networks of MPAs that can maximise benefits to seabirds,” says McGowan. “This will require new collaborations, communications and science to enable this research to lead to practical conservation actions.”

More info: Jennifer McGowan j.mcgowan@uq.edu.au

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