Climate change already affects seabirds but our latest reports predict more dramatic changes over the next three decades. Researchers from the British Trust for Ornithology and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds studied how climate change affects seabirds and how vulnerable different species are to predicted climatic changes. They also advise how the new understanding could inform management plans.
Professor James Pearce-Higgins, Director of Science at the British Trust for Ornithology and a lead author, said: ‘Britain and Ireland support a quarter of Europe’s breeding seabirds. That gives us great responsibility for their conservation. Climate change adds another pressure on seabird populations that are already under threat from stressors including nest predation by non-native species, and the depletion of fish stocks.‘
The team have been using a new computer modelling approach to explore how vulnerable 19 of the breeding seabird species in our project region are to future climate change. Understanding this vulnerability is essential to decide how best to conserve them.
Changes in prey availability and increases in extreme weather events are projected to affect most seabirds. But variation in their diet, and how and where they feed, makes different species more or less vulnerable to climate change.
Of the 19 seabird species modelled, 14 are predicted to decline by 2050. Arctic skua and European storm petrel populations may well disappear from our shores, while puffin, many tern and fulmar populations are likely to more than halve.
Some species may become more common under changing climatic conditions, with increases in common gulls, black-headed gulls, lesser black-backed gulls and shags anticipated.
A team of RSPB researchers used computer models to look at changes of at-sea distribution of seven seabird species, predicting kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, Sandwich terns and Arctic terns to decline significantly across the region. Only shag and common tern populations are projected to increase.
Dr Ian Cleasby, conservation scientist at the RSPB, explained: ‘Climate change is unlikely to have a uniform impact across seabird colonies and this could alter UK-wide seabird distributions as some colonies grow, or remain stable, while others decline. Birds may also have to adjust their foraging behaviour, targeting new areas or ranging further afield, which we should consider carefully when we are designating and managing marine protected areas. Beyond the static MPAs of today we may need to explore a more dynamic protection approach during times of climatic change.’
Professor Pearce-Higgins summarised the suggested conservation responses: ‘To maximise the chances of our seabirds to cope with climate change requires a range of measures, including protection of their breeding sites, strategic siting of marine renewable energy developments, the sustainable management of fish stocks, and the management of introduced predators that can cause significant problems at breeding seabird colonies.’