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Flying under the radar

Interview: Jessie WingardNovember 13, 2015

Seabirds are being severely threatened by fisheries, pollution and invasive species. Scientist and conservationalist Ross Wanless explains to DW why the birds of the sea could be pivotal for survival of the planet.

Afrika Pinguin Brillenpinguin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Zankl

The African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) met in Bonn, Germany, November 9 through 13 to discuss conservation of seabirds. In addition to aiming for an agreement from AEWA member countries on changing fishery management to benefit migratory seabirds, researchers and conservationists also worked together on managing other seabird threats.

DW caught up with Ross Wanless of BirdLife International toward the end of the conference in Bonn.

DW: What is the state of seabirds globally?

Ross Wanless: Seabirds are among the most threatened group of birds in the world, in fact their conservation status has decreased faster than any equivalent group of birds, so they are really not in good shape.

What is the biggest threat to seabirds?

There are two main threats, one is fisheries and a whole range of things within that - so accidental mortality and overfishing - and the other is invasive species on islands.

About 30 years ago, people discovered that when they counted up the number of birds that had been caught up in tuna longline fishing hooks and extrapolated that to the whole fishery, they realized that one or two birds on each boat every day translated into tens of thousands of albatrosses. That broke open a huge issue that we have been battling with ever since: how to stop birds from being caught on longlines.

Ross Wanless ist der Seabird Conservation Programme Manager BirdLife International Marine Programme
Solving the problems of seabird conservation, Wanless says, is not an easy jobImage: Ross M. Wanless

What, if any, solution exists to address the impact of fisheries on sea birds?

There are many solutions, some of them are quite simple and straightforward, don't cost a lot and allow fishing to continue really essentially unchanged. Like just minor modifications to their gear, or how fishers work.

There are other, probably more problematic solutions, such as reduction in fishing and area closures to fishing. There is a whole suite of things that can be done.

If we focus on your home country, South Africa, what would you say is needed there to help seabirds?

BirdLife South Africa has done some amazing work in preventing bycatch, or the incidental catching of seabirds in our fisheries, and our fisheries are some of the best in the world in terms of having solved these enormous problems almost completely.

But, we're really grappling with the problem of the lack of food and the role that fisheries play in causing the collapse of, for example, African penguin populations. So, while we have been good at solving some problems, we are still really coming to grips with some of the other problems.

Through your work, you have initiated some large-scale conservation programs to help the African penguin and other seabirds at risk of low trophic level fisheries impacts, what has that entailed?

Low trophic level fisheries, or forage fisheries, are fisheries that target the small things in the sea, like krill, or sardine or anchovy. They tend to be at the base of the ecosystem, the base of the food chain, so if you overfish those stocks, everything else that feeds on them - the whales, the dolphins, the seals, the seabirds, the other fish that are also commercially exploited - all take strain. It's a real problem and that's the kind of fishing we have to manage very carefully, and that is what we think is behind some of the African penguin collapse.

Silbermöwe Skelett
We need to look at seabirds to understand how other marine life are faring, says WanlessImage: picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library/P. Morris

There is no question that overfishing happened in our waters in the 1960s. The stocks of fish have changed dramatically, and the penguin numbers collapsed along with that.

How can people live harmoniously with seabirds?

I think to many people, there is a false dichotomy. It's not seabirds or fisheries - actually, fisheries should be using seabirds. We believe that penguins, for example in the southwestern part of Africa, are a real sentinel: They are a signal that the marine system is under stress and that if we don't pay attention, the fisheries could collapse.

What we are trying to convince people is: Use the penguins, the information they are telling you is valuable, and you should maybe think seriously about changing your fishing practices.

Pitting penguins or other seabirds against fisheries is really the wrong way to look at it. When the penguins recover, you will probably have a healthy ecosystem again.

I challenge you to answer the question "how many fish are in the sea" with any degree of accuracy - but I can tell you exactly how many penguins there are in southern Africa. We have really good data that we can use, and if we could just change our mindset about that, I think everyone would be in a better space.

The average person may possibly say "seabirds don't concern me" - why should we care about them?

Seabirds in many respects are an important tool for helping manage our impact on the marine environment. The interconnectedness of the ocean is dynamic and different from terrestrial environments, and we don't really have a good understanding or ability to mange it. If we let the seabirds go, if we forget about them and say we don't care, we can live without them - maybe we are right, maybe we are wrong. If we are wrong, have we lost something we can never recover, and everyone suffers at the end of the day? We are playing a high-risk game by ignoring critical components of ecosystems such as seabirds.

If we destroy those species, future generations will never forgive us - we have a responsibility to look after those things.

Ross Wanless ist der Seabird Conservation Programme Manager BirdLife International Marine Programme
Fishers, government and individuals need to work together to ensure seabird survival, Wanless tells DWImage: Ross M. Wanless

What recent developments have been made to protect seabirds?

Seabirds are probably the most international birds of all birds, because the high seas occupy about 60 percent of the surface of the Earth. No one owns the high seas, so they are not in any one country's waters for much of their lives. So we have to be joined up and work collaboratively to protect them.

We have created the World Seabird Union, which brings together 90 percent of seabird conversationalists and researchers, and that gives us a united voice where we can discuss and plan around issues and hold conferences. This allows us to pull things together in a joint way that is so much more powerful than people or countries working individually.

What has come out of the Bonn conference?

The conference has really shown the willingness of countries to grapple with issues and to find effective, efficient ways of addressing problems - not duplicating existing initiatives or existing programs - and that is really encouraging.

That means we are not throwing money at problems. Everyone is really conscious of finding ways where an agreement can be used to do things that no one else is doing, and we don't need to bother with where others are doing them - that, to me, is a really encouraging sign.

Dr. Ross Wanless is the Africa Coordinator for the BirdLife International Marine Programme, and the Seabird Conservation Programme manager for BirdLife South Africa.

The interview was conducted by Jessie Wingard.