Blue Planet 2 has been the most watched television programme of the year, and for good reason, with its stunning cinematography and charismatic cast of characters. Steph Winnard, International Marine Project Manager for the RSPB, discusses the highlights of the show for her, and why the stories of the human impact are the scenes she won’t be forgetting.
Over the last few weeks Blue Planet 2 has led us on an incredible journey of discovery of new weird and wonderful creatures from the deep oceans, shown us unknown behaviours like the octopus fooling the shark with its ingenious disguise of shells, and has provided us with new nightmare material in the form of the Bobbit worm!
For me and for many other people watching the show the thing that sticks most with me is the story telling around the huge impact we as humans are having on our oceans. I will readily admit to being reduced to tears more than once seeing the pilot whale mother clinging to her dead calf, which had possibly been poisoned by her toxic milk, and last night watching the sperm whale trying to eat a bucket, and the majestic wandering albatross chick killed by a plastic toothpick.
Albatrosses are one of the most endangered groups of birds in the world, with 14 of the 22 species facing extinction, so losing even a few because of plastic pollution, is really bad news. South Georgia is over 800 miles from the nearest land but still plastic is being found there, and for the albatross of the Pacific Ocean, many live chicks are brought up in nests made of plastics and are fed huge amounts of plastic, mistaken for food by their parents, with sometimes devastating consequences.
Wandering albatross with chick on South Georgia (c) Stephanie Winnard
On South Georgia the population of wandering albatross has halved over the last 35 years, and the main cause of this has been interactions with fishing, birds flock to the boats in search of a free meal, but sadly it can be their last. It is estimated that around 100,000 albatrosses are killed every year by longline and trawl fisheries around the world, when they are hooked and drowned, or struck by trawler cables and dragged under the water. This level of “bycatch” is hugely unsustainable for birds that can take up to 10 years to start breeding, and has led to worrying declines in albatross populations across the globe.
The RSPB has been working to save the albatross since 2005 when it set up the Albatross Task Force (ATF), an international collaboration of dedicated instructors working directly with fishermen in South America and Southern Africa teaching them simple ways they can avoid accidentally killing albatross. Measures such as fishing at night when birds are less active, weighting lines so they sink faster and using bird scaring lines to keep birds out of danger areas are all extremely effective.
The ATF have focused efforts on the ten worst hotspots for albatross bycatch, and have had some huge successes; reducing albatross bycatch by 99% in the South African demersal trawl fleet, getting regulations introduced to protect seabirds in 9/10 of the hotspot fisheries, and developing entirely new ways of stopping birds being killed in nets. You can find out more detail about our work in our annual report.
Bird scaring line with giant petrels in Argentina (c) Ruben Dellacasa
Despite this success, there is still much work to do to ensure that reductions in bycatch are sustainable into the future, and the ATF are still working closely with the fishing industry in many countries to ensure that albatrosses are kept off the hook.
You can join the fight to save the albatross by helping us raise funds by sending in your Christmas stamps. Each stamp has a very small value but we can sell them to collectors in bulk to raise funds for our vital work. Last year we raised over £20,000 from stamps allowing us to give the albatross a brighter future. To find out how to send your stamps in click here.
RSPB has been working in collaboration with the Government of South Georgia and the South Shetland Islands to conserve albatross, and a new first day cover set of albatross stamps has been produced to raise funds. There are available to buy this week from the RSPB’s ebay store here.
Jonathan Hall, RSPB Head of UK Overseas Territories Unit, talks cheeky penguins, kelp forests and marine reserves in our latest sealife blog.
The ‘green seas’ featured in the latest spell-binding episode of Blue Planet II were dazzling. And the fact that many of these habitats, from shimmering sea-grass beds to epic underwater forests of kelp, are actually found in British waters is amazing.
This isn’t necessarily around the UK, but rather in the vast waters of our Overseas Territories, which collectively make up the fifth largest marine zone on the planet. And it is in these waters that the RSPB is working to hard protect some of the species and habitats shown, including green turtles and sea-lion filled kelp forests.
Our Overseas Territories marine programme has long been focussed on Ascension Island, home to the second largest green turtle nesting population in the Atlantic. Standing on one of the island’s beaches at night you can be surrounded by hundreds of large female turtles huffing and puffing as they dig holes to lay their eggs in. This provided an easy bonanza for sailors wanting fresh meat in the nineteenth century, but today the species is protected on land and its numbers are booming.
Ascension and the UK Government have now gone further and also pledged to protect at least 50% of Ascension’s rich waters in an ocean sanctuary the size of the UK by 2019. This is a visionary pledge and one we have been working to help make a reality through science and illegal fishing monitoring support.
Green turtle nesting on Ascension Island (c) Sam Weber
We are also focussing on supporting the remarkable community of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic to help protect their kelp forests and surrounding waters. This, the world’s most remote inhabited island, is home to a remarkable ocean ecosystem, with vast kelp stretching like the pillars of a cathedral up from the sea floor to the surface. In this magnificent silent jungle one finds huge shoals of fish, cheeky Northern rockhopper penguins and the most important Subantarctic fur seal population on the planet.
These kelp forests are the basis for an entire community of species, but perhaps most significantly are also the habitat for the unique Tristan rock lobster upon which the 270 Tristanians so heavily depends for their livelihoods. Their sustainable fishery is already Marine Stewardship Council certified, and we are working to help them further understand their lobster populations via a UK Government-funded Darwin Plus project so that they can manage them as well as possible. We are also studying the endangered penguins which call these forests home in order to help understand the potential reasons for their decline.
Over 80% of the world population of Subantarctic fur seals breeds in the Tristan da Cunha group, a UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic that is working towards a large-scale marine protection regime (c) Scott Hamilton
Most impressively, the Tristan da Cunha community has made its own visionary pledge to place its entire 750,000km2 marine zone into a marine protection regime by 2020. This will safeguard these inshore green seas for future generations of Tristanians, as well as protecting a vast area of ocean for sharks, albatrosses, seals, whales and dolphins. In order to help the community better understand their waters and inform their marine protection, we partnered with National Geographic Pristine Seas earlier in the year to conduct a joint expedition to the island, returning with new discoveries such as the fact that Tristan’s waters are a previously unknown blue shark breeding area.
The beautiful kelp forests of Tristan da Cunha being explored on the National Geographic Pristine Seas – RSPB marine expedition earlier this year (c) Roger Horrocks
So how can you help protect our incredible overseas green seas? Well the RSPB is part of a coalition called ‘Great British Oceans’, which this week has launched a campaign calling on the UK Government to take this unique opportunity to protect our blue planet, including by supporting the visionary marine protection pledges of Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.
These will both need continued UK Government political and financial support, but will protect some vast and amazing areas of ocean at very little cost. We are asking MPs to show their support for these marine protections by signing up to a Blue Belt Charter. Could you please take a minute to visit and show your support for our overseas green seas?
The aging albatross parents fledging their last chick was a bitter-sweet moment in last night’s amazing Blue Planet II episode. Not mentioned however was that this was on a British island, for over a third of the world’s albatross breed on British islands in the southern seas. Jonathan Hall, Head of UK Overseas Territories Unit, and Kat Holmes, RSPB's Marine Policy Officer reflects on Blue Planet II's latest thought-provoking episode.
In this case, South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands, one of 14 UK Overseas Territories dotted around the world’s oceans. These small islands have a vast area of the big blue under their jurisdiction, giving the UK a total marine estate which is the fifth largest of any country in the world. Of course, this blue estate also includes the surprisingly diverse seas we find at home, around the British Isles, and last night we got a glimpse of the importance of the seas around Scotland.
South Georgia's Bird Island - part of the UK - and an important area for wandering albatross (c) Alastair Wilson (rspb-images.com)
The UK’s ‘big blue’ is home to many of the species featured last night- if you are lucky enough you can find sperm whales, turtles and dolphins in both Scottish and Overseas Territories Waters, although you will only find whale sharks and great whites in the waters of the Overseas territories . These special waters mean the UK has an important responsibility when it comes to ocean conservation.
The RSPB has therefore been campaigning for the UK to be a leader in ocean conservation via the creation of a ‘Blue Belt’ of marine reserves in these waters, to be established both at home and in partnership with Overseas Territory Governments. We are part of a coalition called ‘Great British Oceans’, which this week has launched a campaign to #backthebluebelt, calling on the UK Government to take this unique opportunity to protect our blue planet, including by the creation of a half a million square kilometre marine reserve in some of the waters where South Georgia’s wandering albatross feed. To find out more about the ocean treasures of our Overseas Territories, and to show your support, please visit.
Adult wandering albatross (c) Alastair Wilson (rspb-images.com)
The RSPB also knows that we need to match this ambition at home, because our sea life needs and deserves it. When we dip our toe into the icy waters at our local beach we are connecting to the blue planet that surrounds our shores and that is home to dolphins, whales, sharks, visiting turtles and of course some of the most important seabird colonies in the world. But our seabirds, as an important environmental indicator, are telling us something is wrong.
Their overall decline in UK waters show that these seas and the sealife that rely on them are not in good health. The government is looking to the future and setting a 25 year plan for the Environment that we hope will help to address this in England. We are asking the Government to re-commit to the UK wide goal of restoring British seas to good health by 2020[i], so that when children dip their toes into the sea in the future they can know that they are connected to an inspiring blue planet full of life.
[i] A commitment already laid down in UK law through the UK Marine Strategy Regulations.