A merger of two previous teams of experts, the OSPAR Expert Group on Marine Birds and the ICES Working Group on Seabird Ecology (WGSE), JWGBIRD is a collective with a wide spectrum of interests all under one common theme – seabirds and waterbirds. Its mission is twofold: to work with the more applied science such as producing indicators to inform marine conservation policy and also to deliver ‘purer’ science that, for example, will aid the understanding of factors affecting change in marine bird populations.
For its first ever meeting, which took place in Copenhagen this year, this meant testing the operation of quantitative indicators for OSPAR to assess Good Environmental Status (GES) under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) and considering the potential impact that the new Common Fisheries Policy (CFP)’s Landings Obligations – a code which necessitates the ending of fish discards at sea – might have on various species of birds whilst developing a protocol for monitoring these impacts.
“The CFP landings obligation and how it will affect the birds is a really interesting question,” explains JWGBIRD chair Ian Mitchell. “It’s one of the few positive impacts we have on seabirds – that we give them lots of food.”
Mitchell, whose group are asking external experts to score various seabird species on how sensitive they’re going to be to the removal of discards, goes on to describe the types of consequence the discard ban might have.
“The direct effect of birds not having enough food during the year might be that they survive winters but might not be in very good breeding condition by the time the breeding season starts. This may cause birds either not to breed in the first place or it may lower their breeding success rate.”
“Indirect effects could be on, for instance, population numbers. We know that great skuas feed a lot on discards and if there aren’t as many discards around they go and prey on other seabird species like Arctic skuas. In Shetland and Orkney, they have been responsible for significantly reducing the breeding output of Arctic skuas, whose overall population is going down quite dramatically.”
“It means there’s a large greater skua population now as we may have artificially elevated it by giving them lots of food. Because you’ve created this big population, if you take away the discards, they’ll start to maybe disproportionately prey on other species. It’s the same for a lot of the scavenger species.”
For the MSFD, meanwhile, JWGBIRD is tasked with compiling and testing the data for two seabird indicators – that of marine bird abundance (B1) and that of breeding success (B3). This involves issues such as counting birds at their breeding colonies and also those away from such sites, some of which do not breed within the OSPAR area but visit there on migration or to spend the winter. Work on this requires weighing up a fundamental question: what constitutes a successful breeding season?
“We’re still having a lot of arguments about how to set targets for breeding success,” continues Mitchell. “It’s difficult to know what a good level of success is due to the different demographics that go together for population size and trajectory. As well as chicks that fledge from a number of active nests, there’s adult survival, survival of the chicks once they fledge, and age of first breeding. It’s hard to measure what’s successful and what isn’t. So one approach we’ve taken is we’ve decided to define what’s really bad – to look at breeding failure rates – the number of colonies with a given area that are producing virtually no chicks in a year.”
With the ingredients of the indicators as well as how to set targets and baselines having already been worked out, the spotlight in 2014 also falls on data. The group will look at how to get data from different contracting parties and whether they’re complete before weighing up their effectiveness in assessing whether a target has been met or not.
With the indicators' ingredients as well as how to set targets and baselines having already been worked out, the spotlight in 2014 also falls on data. The group are looking at how to get data from different contracting parties and whether they’re complete before weighing up their effectiveness in assessing whether a target has been met or not.
“With a lot of these indicators it’s very easy to show trends. But with the MSFD the challenge is actual targets, to be able to ascertain what’s good and bad, what’s Good Environmental Status and what isn’t. That’s where it gets really difficult,” adds Mitchell.
These indicators, in what is a process happening across OSPAR working groups, will be used by EU Member States to report to the Commission in 2018.
Flock of seagulls feeding on discarded fish; © Sarah Lelong, Marine Photobank