Statelessness and decline in seabirds

23 09 2015

This week, I read an article in the Guardian about global, severe declines in the majority of seabird species. The impacts have been worst in open-ocean birds like albatross, petrels, and shearwaters. Though the causes of such a broad and precipitious decline are myriad, one particular factor caught my eye–the remarkable globe-trotting of these birds and their utter lack of respect for political boundaries. People marvel at feats like the globe crossing migrations of terns, or the zig-zag path of Greater Shearwaters as they bounce from North America over to Africa and down to the farthest south Atlantic. But this fligth prowess puts there birds at risk. While they may be well protected under one nation’s conservation policies, as soon as they pass into another country’s waters, those protections may fall away. This is not to mention the lawlessless of the high seas–the open ocean where many of these birds must make a living. Plastic pollution, overfishing, entanglement: these mutiple factors all converge on the open ocean species.

In my biology classes, I like to show my students, many of whom are immigrants from the Dominican Republic, this image of the island of Hispaniola.

The border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic (right) where forest protections are much more stringent.

The border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic (right) where forest protections are well enforced.

In many cases, we know what we need to do to protect seabirds; longline fishing techniques, for instance, can be modified to avoid catching albatross. But issues of compliance and enforcement are myriad. We know that overfishing can be addressed and that fish populations can rebound quickly in some cases. Several years ago, Senegal banned the export of fish caught in its waters and rescinded the fishing licenses of many EU and Asian boats. This was done mainly to protect subsistence and artisanal fishing in that country, but it has successfully boosted fish stocks. Each nation makes its own laws, of course, and even then, the ability to enforce those laws varies wildly between nations and continents. Threading their way through all these borders are the seabirds. Unless we can get some semblance of an international approach, it seems we can anticipate further declines across these species groups. I am congenitally optimistic, but my realist side does wonder…

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One response

1 10 2015
Dennis Minsky

amazing picture of the contrast between Haiti and the DR: thanks.

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