Study finds high seas constitute critical at-sea area for albatross

Date: 8th June 2021

An important piece of evidence came to light with this new study that reveals that albatross and large petrels, spend circa 40% of their time in areas beyond national jurisdiction. The study combined over ten thousand movement tracks from 5,775 birds to estimate the relative year-round importance of national jurisdictions and high seas areas for 39 species of albatross and large petrels.

The results show that the high seas constitute the most important at-sea area for these birds globally, and in every ocean basin, indicating that effective management of international waters is of common, global interest. The study also reveals that all species regularly cross into the waters of other countries, meaning that no single nation can adequately ensure their conservation. 

Credit: Benjamin Metzger

By identifying the specific set of countries visited by these seabird groups originating in different countries, the findings provide support for existing bilateral and multilateral cooperation and agreements. “Our study unequivocally shows that albatrosses and large petrels need reliable protection that extends beyond the borders of any single country,” says Martin Beal, lead author of the study at the Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre at ISPA – Instituto Universitário in Lisbon, Portugal.  

The study provides countries with tangible, quantitative indicators of the relative importance of the high seas for their respective communities of breeding seabirds, which are highly pertinent for countries involved in the ongoing discussions on the BBNJ treaty as well as on negotiations of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework under the Convention on Biological Diversity.  Carolina Hazin, Marine Policy Coordinator for BirdLife International, and co-author of the paper, views it as part of a bigger picture. “No conservation of migratory species can be effective if fragmented in terms of space, time and activity. This study reinforces the urgency that the United Nations adopt the high seas treaty, which should be built and implemented in synergy with the Convention on Biological Diversity’s global goals to protect all nature over the next decade.”

Albatross and large petrels are among the world’s most-threatened animals, with over half of the species at risk of extinction. At sea, they face numerous dangers, particularly injury and mortality from fishing gear and loss of their natural prey due to overfishing and climate change.

A combination of conservation measures is critical to avoid extinction of these species in the very near future. The extensive and dynamic ranges of albatross and large petrels indicate at-sea area-based protection, including marine protected areas, is important, but may not be sufficient to address threats. In periods when the movements of seabirds are less restricted, ecosystem-based management across the wider seascape is required, including implementation of effective fisheries measures. 

Therefore, this work makes explicit the relative responsibilities that each country and Regional Fisheries Management Organizations have for the management of shared biodiversity, providing invaluable information for the conservation and management of migratory species in the marine realm.

The BBNJ treaty objective is the conservation and sustainable use of high seas biodiversity; however, on the basis of the precondition of “not undermining” existing management organizations and bodies, a select few have indicated their desire to exclude fisheries from the treaty . As the major, immediate at-sea threats to albatrosses and large petrels relate largely to fisheries, a fisheries exclusion represents a missed opportunity to improve fisheries governance.  

As human endeavour in the marine environment expands, it becomes more important than ever that our systems of management and protection reflect this interconnected reality.

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