Seabirds tell us a lot about the health of the ocean because they rely on the ocean’s continuing health and biodiversity to survive. Much like the “canary in the coal mine” warns of danger to come, declining seabird populations are one of the first indicators that the ocean is unwell.
The world’s seabird population has dropped dramatically in the last 60 years – an indication of the huge impact humanity is having on the ocean ecosystem. Many species are on the brink of extinction; the albatross family is especially imperiled, with 15 of 22 species threatened with extinction.
The speed at which seabird species are declining is another indicator that our efforts to remove plastic from the ocean are not only necessary, but mission critical.
A seabird is any bird whose survival depends largely on the marine environment. They forage in the open ocean and along coastlines, and are increasingly picking up marine debris instead of food. Plastic ingestion by seabirds was first documented in the 1960s and has been increasing ever since. Today, at least 40% of seabird species are known to ingest plastic and experts predict that by 2050, this will rise to 99%. So, in the next 30 years, nearly every seabird on earth will have eaten plastic.
It’s not just grown seabirds that are consuming plastic. Many chicks are fed plastic by parents who have mistaken it for food. Sharp pieces can cause fatal internal injuries, and soft plastic like balloons can block the digestive tract. Plastic can also fill the birds’ stomachs so there is not enough room for food, causing them to starve.
Seabirds are easily tangled in plastic bags, abandoned fishing line, and other marine debris. Many of these animals are severely injured or die because they are unable to free themselves. Entangled seabirds can also bring these hazards back to their roosting or nesting sites, which pose dangers to other seabirds in the area. Some seabirds will even try to use marine debris as nesting material, which can also lead to injuries and deaths caused by entanglement.
Accidental capture in fishing gear (a phenomenon known as bycatch) kills hundreds of thousands of seabirds every year. An estimated 300,000 seabirds are killed by longline fishing fleets while more than 400,000 die in gillnets every year.
Declines in seabird populations are also closely linked to the expansion of commercial fisheries into their feeding areas. Overfishing of seabirds’ prey species like sardines, anchovies and krill leaves the birds with less food to feed themselves and their chicks.
As the human population expands into areas once dominated by seabirds, we bring invasive species like cats, rats, and mice that prey on seabirds’ nesting colonies. In some seabird populations, the predation rate of eggs and chicks is as high as 80%. This causes many seabird populations to become unstable. For some, like the Tristan Albatross (critically endangered) and the Atlantic Petrel (endangered), this will most likely lead to extinction. Also, direct harvesting of eggs and adults by humans can have a significant impact on a population.
Ultimately, the threats from bycatch, invasive species, direct harvesting, ocean plastic and others are all acting in combination, and that cumulative impact is driving many seabird species to extinction.
We’re partnering with BirdLife International to help find solutions that will halt the decline of seabird populations.
By purchasing a Seabird Bracelet, you’ll remove one pound of trash from the ocean and coastlines and help fund protective measures that will help stop declines in seabird populations all over the world.
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