Scotland’s Seabird Predicament

When you think of Scotland you can’t help but think of its beautifully rugged coastline and the many islands which sit in its water playing home to thousands of seabirds and other marine life. Puffins are perhaps the most obvious example however like many of Scotland’s glorious bird population puffins are in trouble.

In total Scotland’s seabird population has halved since 2000. More worrying are some of the individual species declines; Arctic terns have declined by 72 per cent and Arctic Skuas are down by 80 per cent. This is not for lack of protection afforded by the EU.

In line with the Birds Directive, member states must create Special Protection Areas (SPA’s) for rare and vulnerable bird  species. Bass Island is a great example of a successful SPA. Home to the world’s largest colony of Northern gannets the population has increased by a quarter between 2009 and 2015. The population is so vast that the giant lump of volcanic rock which constitutes the island turns white from the sheer numbers of individuals.

Bass Rock turns white from the huge population of gannets which call it home. Image Credit: RSPB

Bass Rock turns white from the huge population of gannets which call it home. Image Credit: RSPB

A hugely versatile species, gannets are able to eat a huge variety of things as they are scavengers at the top of the food chain. So to them it is less consequential that only the volcanic rock they call home is a protected area but the sea which surrounds it is fair game.

Other seabirds are less fortunate requiring large shoals of fish to survive. Thus if the seas are not adequately protected the fish which seabirds need to thrive aren’t either, and it impacts upon populations the whole way up the food chain. This also means seabirds can be used as a good indicator for the health of the seas. If there is a large population of breeding seabirds but only a tiny amount of chicks fledge it highlights the lack of food for the population to be successful.

The industrialisation of our oceans has been well documented in its ability to cause empty oceans. For Scotland in particular the destruction of key habitats through the introduction of fish farms, wind turbines and dredging, has led to a reduction in the supply of seabird food such as sand eels. Yet the protection afforded to Scottish seas is minimal. Indeed in the UK only three entirely marine SPA’s have been created so far which begs the question as to why?

Reforming the way we use the sea is controversial as it is a huge commercial asset. Various commercial marine and coastal activities generate in the region of £2.2bn annually for the Scottish Government, and it is expected that this will only increase as the development in marine renewables continues. Yet seabirds play an important role within this and their perilous drop in populations is highly worrying as it is likely indicative of a more widespread picture.

The Scottish Government has proposed 14 new SPAs; one of which would include the waters around Bass Island. If the areas were introduced they would provide protection from activities such as scallop dredging and wind farm development which would hopefully have an impact upon bird populations within the region. Conservation charities are however calling upon the Government to stop dragging their heels over the decision and to introduce all 14 proposed areas as soon as possible.

Featured Image by the Scottish Seabird Centre

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Emily Stewart
Owner of Inspirewildlife - a site dedicated to sharing positive conservation news stories from around the world. Zoo Management Graduate from University of Chester
Emily Stewart

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