What do missing seabirds tell us about the oceans?
An ocean fisheries researcher recently completed a study that tells two stories.
He and his team surveyed decades of visual counts of 324 seabird species along 357 coastal stretches across the world. The findings revealed that at least 70% of these birds have disappeared since 1950.
Daniel Pauly and team in Vancouver Canada focus on measuring ocean productivity under their organization called Sea Around Us. Their conservative estimate of two thirds loss in the world's seabird population over the last few decades has happened in a relative blink-of-an-eye, by evolutionary time.
This is a lot of change.
But to really understand what this means, it should stand next to similar indicators that are occurring in ecosystem after ecosystem.
On average, seabirds spend most of their lives gliding over vast areas on the hunt for small fish that live primarily at various depths. With highly defined vision, they pick these fish off where they congregate near the surface.
Consequently, the study not only reflects the conditions of large areas of the ocean’s surface, it also shows the state of the food chain in deeper waters.
If bird populations are fading this fast, then key fish populations they rely on are of course fading - due to industrial overfishing, studies say.
These same small fish feed other fish that in turn feed others farther up the chain, and often these are important food stocks for mankind. They supply heart-healthy protein and fish oils to hundreds of millions around the world.
Consequently, sooner or later, too great a loss of this “biomass” will absolutely have to affect what we harvest, what the seabirds harvest and what the ocean’s long term vitality is likely to be.
As the birds cruise the surface looking for fish, they run directly into another problem, pieces of plastic that grab their attention and evidently resemble their normal prey, so they swoop in for a snack.
These plastic lures are leftovers of our packaging and consumer goods, floating by the billions on the sea surface. The plastic is indigestible and tends to clog their systems, eventually killing them.
We can say to ourselves that this is just one instance of an unfortunate environmental event. We can say that these species are just small birds and fish, and that therefore it’s no big deal.
That might be so if not for the fact that this is only one of a vast number of indicators, all saying the same thing:
We are sinking the ship that all of life floats aboard.