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Atlantic Seabird Tragedy

Last modified: 04 March 2014

Puffins on Isle of May nature reserve

Image: Andy Hay

Winter storms kills at least 28,000 seabirds in the NE Atlantic

During February more than 1,000 dead seabirds were found around the coasts of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset in SW England.

Birds also washed up on beaches elsewhere around the UK (including 600 in Wales) and more than 1,000 have been recorded in the Channel Islands. 

Only a small proportion has been found alive.  Reports are still coming into the RSPB as birds continue to wash up. More than 20 different species have been recorded with the major casualties being auks (guillemots, razorbills and puffins) with smaller numbers of kittiwakes, gannets, fulmars, gulls and shags.

Massive seabird mortality was reported by RSPB’s partner organisation Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux  (LPO) along the coast of SW France (northern Bay of Biscay) where 21,567 dead (and 2,784 live birds), had been recorded ashore by the end of February, with reports of fishermen seeing dead birds `carpeting the sea’.  More than 200 dead seabirds (mostly guillemots) have been recorded on northern Spanish beaches.

Reports are still being collated but the combined recorded death toll is expected to exceed 28,000.  Other affected birds will have died at sea or ashore, unobserved and unrecorded.

Puffins have fared particularly badly, with more than 30 reported dead around the UK, 97 dead in the Channel Islands and 14,455 dead and 1086 live found on beaches in SW France.  These small birds can’t dive very deep to find their food and storm turbulence means fish are likely to move deeper in the water column to find calmer conditions.  Even if fish are still close enough to the surface for puffins, the RSPB says that feeding in storm-tossed seas must be akin to trying to see and catch fish inside a washing machine set on spin.

Most dead and live beached birds were `clean’ though a small proportion was oiled (for example more than 100 oiled birds reported from SW England beaches).  However the RSPB says that, while any oiled seabird is a concern, these mass deaths are not the result of a major pollution incident.  Post mortem and weighing of some corpses has shown that birds were very underweight and therefore starving.

Dr Euan Dunn, RSPB principal marine advisor, said; "This seabird wreck, on a scale unprecedented in living memory, could have profound impacts on vulnerable seabird breeding colonies, including the Channel Islands and the Isles of Scilly, where puffins have a fragile toehold, and on Lundy, where puffins are starting to recover from near extinction."

"Following hot on the heels of last year's seabird wreck in the North Sea in which several thousand puffins died, we have genuine fears that increasing storminess associated with climate change will undermine our internationally important seabird populations. Many of our seabirds are already under pressure because their staple summer diet of sandeels is in decline in response to sea warming, another result of climate change, which is making it a struggle to find enough food for themselves and their chicks. Sea warming, along with winter storms, which make it hard for birds to find fish in continually turbulent seas, are inflicting a double whammy.”

"We can and do help seabirds on land by protecting their breeding sites and undertaking seabird recovery projects on islands.  But we must do everything in our power to protect our seabird populations at sea and make them and other marine life more resilient to the devastating effects of these `storm wrecks’ by designating marine protected areas (MPAs). MPAs can ensure that important foraging and other areas for seabirds at sea are protected and managed to give them a fighting chance.”

Roland Gauvain, Alderney Wildlife Trust Manager, who has helped coordinate the response to the incident across the Channel Islands, commented “Over the last 3 weeks we have seen more seabirds dead on our shores than we would expect in 5 to 10 years.  We know (from finding ringed birds) that birds washed up here belong to breeding populations from Wales to Scotland and beyond.  The scale and suddenness of this disaster, coming as it did in the midst of the seemingly endless storms, dramatically reinforces the dangers our wildlife faces from climatic events which seem likely to become increasingly common.  Here on Alderney, and within the Channel Islands as a whole, we are witnessing greater and greater pressures, from climate and human interaction, on some of our most charismatic wildlife.  The global threat of climate change has increasingly local impacts, something very apparent to those of us live on small islands.”

Advice for the members of the public who find dead seabirds can be found here:

Bird guide

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