Biodiversity: New study finds that seabird populations have dropped 70 percent since the 1950s

Steep downward trend poses threats to marine ecosystems

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Pelagic bird populations are declining at an alarming rate. @bberwyn photo.
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A Florida pelican. @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

FRISCO — Researchers with the University of British Columbia say that global seabird populations — including penguins, albatrosses, petrels and pelicans — have declined by 70 percent since the 1950s — a clear sign that marine ecosystems are in trouble.

The findings are based on an analysis of more than 500 seabird populations , representing about 19 per cent of the global seabird population. The 70 percent decline is equivalent to the loss of about 230 million birds in 60 years, said Michelle Paleczny, a UBC master’s student and researcher with the Sea Around Us project.

“Seabirds are particularly good indicators of the health of marine ecosystems,” said Paleczny. “When we see this magnitude of seabird decline, we can see there is something wrong with marine ecosystems. It gives us an idea of the overall impact we’re having.”

The dramatic decline is caused by a variety of factors including overfishing of the fish seabirds rely on for food, birds getting tangled in fishing gear, plastic and oil pollution, introduction of non-native predators to seabird colonies, destruction and changes to seabird habitat, and environmental and ecological changes caused by climate change.

Seabirds tend to travel the world’s oceans foraging for food over their long lifetimes, and return to the same colonies to breed. Colony population numbers provide information to scientists about the health of the oceans the birds call home.

Albatross, an iconic marine bird that lives for several decades, were part of the study and showed substantial declines. Paleczny says these birds live so long and range so far that they encounter many dangers in their travels. A major threat to albatross is getting caught on longline fishing hooks and drowning, a problem that kills hundreds of thousands of seabirds every year.

“Our work demonstrates the strong need for increased seabird conservation effort internationally,” said Paleczny. “Loss of seabirds causes a variety of impacts in coastal and marine ecosystems”

Seabirds play an important role in those ecosystems. They eat and are eaten by a variety of other marine species. They also transport nutrients in their waste back to the coastal ecosystems in which they breed, helping to fertilize entire food webs.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, is the first to estimate overall change in available global seabird population data. It is a collaboration between UBC researchers Paleczny, Vasiliki Karpouzi and Daniel Pauly and Edd Hammill, a lecturer at the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia.

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2 thoughts on “Biodiversity: New study finds that seabird populations have dropped 70 percent since the 1950s

  1. where’s the compassion? does money mean so much that folks can just watch everything die? don’t you see humans won’t survive at this rate either?

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