Scientists concerned over global declines in seabird populations

More than any other group of birds, seabirds are in trouble, according to scientists from BirdLife International and the RSPB (BirdLife partner in the UK) who have reviewed the status of the 346 species of seabird inhabiting the world’s oceans.

A Scopoli's Shearwater dips its wing-tip, almost touching the surface of the water as it skims over the sea. Photo by Nicholas Galea

A Scopoli’s Shearwater dips its wing-tip, almost touching the surface of the water as it skims over the sea. Photo by Nicholas Galea


The review article published in the scientific journal Bird Conservation International this March reveals that the status of seabirds has deteriorated rapidly in recent decades. Nearly half of all seabird species are now known or suspected to be experiencing population declines. Ninety-seven seabird species are facing extinction and a further 35 species are nearing this threshold.

The Maltese archipelago strategically located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea holds internationally important breeding grounds of three seabird species. Around 10 percent of the global population of Yelkouan Shearwaters and 5 percent of the Mediterranean population of Cory’s Shearwaters breed in the Maltese islands. Both species are listed as globally threatened.

Furthermore Malta is also home to the largest breeding colony of European Storm Petrel in the Mediterranean. Filfla, a Special Protected Area, holds 50 percent of the Mediterranean breeding population of European Strom Petrels.

At Sea, hundreds of thousands of seabirds die each year as they get caught as a “by-product” of the fishing industry. On land, seabird colonies are under threat from predation by invasive species such as rats.  In Malta, rats are known to have decimated Yelkouan Shearwater colonies, hampering their breeding success. This trend was fortunately reversed at the Rdum tal-Madonna Natura 2000 site thanks to the rat eradication programme conducted by the EU LIFE Yelkouan Shearwater project over the last five years.

Cory’s shearwater caught up in a longline hook.

Cory’s shearwater caught up in a longline hook.

To reverse the declines of seabirds globally, the authors of the review article give main priority to the control/eradication of invasive species and the protection of key seabird habitats.  In addition to protecting breeding colonies on land, the protection of key feeding and aggregation areas at sea is essential.

BirdLife Malta and the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Environment, together with the RSPB and SPEA (the BirdLife partners in the UK and Portugal), have recently launched a research project to identify Marine Important Bird Areas for Maltese seabirds. The aim of the EU LIFE+ Malta Seabird Project is to establish protection areas at sea, thus safeguarding the future of Malta’s seabirds and the marine environment.

Logos for Seabird


1. The review article [Croxall, J. P., Butchart S. H. M., Lascelles, B., Stattersfield A. J., Sullivan B., Symes, A. and Taylor, P. (2012) Seabird conservation status, threats and priority actions: a global assessment. Bird Conserv. Int. 22:1–34] is the lead paper of a special seabird edition of Bird Conservation International.

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