Gannets and guillemots: Ian McCarthy

Hundreds of seabirds, mostly guillemots, have again been washed up along the south coast of England covered in a debilitating sticky substance.  This is a virtual repeat of the incident back in February this year when over 500 birds were found from Devon to Dorset. See the February pages of this blog for more information.

This time however the tide of dead birds is further west in south east Cornwall and South Devon, in just a couple of days over 700 birds have been washed ashore. For a personal perspective on this seabird tragedy visit the blog of Alison Fogg in Cornwall  In a walk on Monday 15 April she was horrified to discover over 157 dead birds on a short stretch of Cornish beach.


What is the scale of the incident?

So far we know hundreds birds have been affected. Over 400 dead birds have been collected from Cornish beaches, with more than 200 live birds affected.  As of 16 April, 197 live birds had been taken to the RSPCA centre at West Hatch alone. However, we will probably never know the full extent of this incident as many of the birds are likely to be lost at sea.  It is generally accepted that 3-10 times as many birds die at sea than are washed ashore in incidents like these.  It appears that along with the increasing numbers of birds affected, the range of species affected, and locations where they have been found are also increasing.

Guillemots have been most affected, as 90% of the birds washed up have been this amber-listed bird of conservation concern.  Other species involved have included puffins, razorbills, shags, cormorants, terns and gannets.  It is thought many of these birds will be local breeding birds, indeed we know one of the dead gannets was a bird from the colony in Alderney, Channel Islands.

Guillemot: Bob Mitchell

What is causing this?

The deadly pollutant is the same as back in February, polyisobutene (PIB), which is used for a wide range of purposes, from fuel additives to chewing gum. As before, there is no indication as to the source of this pollution. Despite its lethal effect on seabirds, under international marine pollution regulations (The MARPOL Convention) it is perfectly legal to discharge certain amounts of PIB into our marine environment when vessels wash out their tanks.


Guillemot: Ian McCarthy

What next?

RSPB staff and volunteers are undertaking an emergency survey of beaches in the affected area to record any dead birds (and pass details of live birds to RSPCA). 

The RSPB has written to the International Maritime Organisation asking for a review of this position and is also raising this issue with the government. We believe that the risks to the marine environment from PIB are underestimated, and that we simply do not know how much PIB is regularly released into the sea in legal discharges. As such, we believe that until we can prove PIB is safe, it should be reclassified to prohibit its discharge.

 Longer term, the key to mitigating the impact of incidents like this is a healthy population in the first place, so the future of a species is not significantly impaired by one-off disasters.  One of the best ways to build resilience into our marine wildlife is a well-connected network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). 

MPAs will not stop individuals caught in a disaster from dying, but they provide a healthy reservoir to allow the population to recover. It is therefore disappointing that the current proposals for English Marine Conservation Zones proposed by the government for implementation in 2013 are so inadequate, as criticised last week by the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee.  Not only are there not enough sites proposed (only 31 of the 127 agreed and recommended by stakeholders), but they will also be protecting fewer habitats and species in many cases.  Mobile species in particular are poorly accounted for in the 31 sites proposed, and not a single one of those sites currently includes seabirds as protected species.


What do I do if I find an affected bird?

If you find an affected live bird, we advise you not to touch it, as we do not know how hazardous the contaminant may be.  Also, a stressed bird is difficult to catch, so you may unintentionally cause it further distress and it may escape back to sea untreated.  If you find any affected live birds, please contact the RSPCA (call 0300 1234 999).  If you find a dead bird, please report it to the RSPB on 01392 432691.



This is a very distressing event, and we applaud the RSPCA, South Devon Seabird Trust, Cornwall and Devon Wildlife Trusts, BTO and of course all the volunteers who are working to help resolve the situation.