Food for thought: studying foraging to protect seabirds at sea

Common Guillemot. Photograph by Edmund Fellowes.

 

The UK government is committed to establishing an ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to manage and conserve marine ecosystems. Seabirds are vital to such ecosystems, but until now these species have received little protection at sea. This is partly because there is scant information available on the oceanic regions they use at the different stages of their lifecycle. A new study led by the BTO, in partnership with the RSPB and Birdlife International, has sought to address this by bringing together work on how far UK-breeding seabirds travel from their colonies (typically in search of food for themselves or their chicks) during the breeding season. This study used results from tracking, indirect measures and survey-based observations of seabird movements to calculate ranges over which seabirds might forage. It also assessed the validity of these ranges based on the quality of the methods underpinning them. Manx Shearwater, Northern Gannet and Northern Fulmar had the largest maximum foraging ranges at 330, 590 and 580 km respectively, while Red-throated Diver (9 km) and Little Tern (11 km) had the smallest. The approach taken in this study can be used as a first step in identifying areas of ocean away from breeding colonies that may be crucial for sustaining seabirds. Further work would then be then required to firm up the boundaries of specific MPAs. This approach is however, relatively cheap and simple, and could easily be adopted outside the UK to become an important tool in protecting seabird habitat globally.

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Full citation: Thaxter, C.B., Lascelles, B., Sugar, K., Cook, A.S.C.P., Roos, S., Bolton, M., Langston, R.H.W. & Burton, N.H.K. 2012. Seabird foraging ranges as a preliminary tool for identifying candidate Marine Protected Areas. Biological Conservation. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2011.12.009