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For threatened seabirds of NE Atlantic, climate change piles on the pressure

A puffin flying.

A puffin flying. Image © Seppo Häkkinen.

  • A new report shows that puffins and other seabird species in the Northeast Atlantic are at risk from climate change.
  • It warns most seabird species would lose a substantial amount of their current breeding sites and available prey due to climate change, but each species has unique challenges.
  • The authors describe potential interventions that conservation experts can enact to protect the species, including the relocation of seabird breeding sites, supplementary feeding, and providing resources that help seabirds deal with extreme weather events such as flooding and heat waves.

In spring and summer, visitors flock to Northern Ireland’s Rathlin Island to catch a glimpse of the bright-billed Atlantic puffins that stop there to breed. But in recent years, the island’s puffin population has plummeted, largely due to invasive ferrets and rats preying upon them.

To protect the Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica), whose global population is threatened with extinction, conservation experts took bold measures: they used puffin decoys and sound recordings to lure the seabirds to the nearby Copeland Islands. Puffins have not historically nested on the Copeland Islands, but this location has a clear advantage: it’s free of invasive species. So far, the plan seems to be working, as puffins have started to breed on the islands.

Predation by invasive species is just one threat that Atlantic puffins have to deal with. As climate change alters both the marine and terrestrial ecosystems that puffins depend upon, the species faces extreme weather and a decrease in food sources. And things are set to get even worse. New research suggests that puffins will lose about 70% of their nesting grounds by the end of the century due to the impacts of climate change, making it necessary to enact conservation measures, such as encouraging them to relocate to more suitable habitats.

A group of puffins on a cliff on the Farne Islands.
A group of puffins on a cliff on the Farne Islands. Image © Seppo Häkkinen.
A colony of seabirds off the coast of the Farne Islands.
A colony of seabirds off the coast of the Farne Islands. Image © Seppo Häkkinen.

In a recently published report, researchers from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the University of Cambridge assessed the future risks to seabirds in the Northeast Atlantic, including puffins as well as other auks, cormorants, gannets, grebes, gulls, loons, sea ducks, skuas and terns.

The report found that most seabird species will lose a substantial amount of their current nesting sites and available prey due to climate change, but each species has unique challenges. For instance, the authors suggest that black guillemots (Cepphus grylle), which tend to nest close to the water level, will be especially vulnerable to sea level rise, extreme precipitation and even tidal surges attributed to climate change. Ivory gulls (Pagophila eburnea), which rely on sea ice for breeding and hunting, are set to lose almost all of their current nesting areas in the Northeast Atlantic. In contrast, little terns (Sternula albifrons) would lose very little of their current breeding areas and would even gain some areas by the end of the century. However, little terns would still be vulnerable to a decrease in prey, extreme weather and predation.

The authors describe potential interventions that conservation experts can enact to protect the species. Some actions, like the relocation of seabirds, have been tested; others are hypothetical, such as installing flood barriers or providing artificial pools to help seabirds deal with extreme heat. Other actions include providing supplementary food, artificially incubating and hand-raising chicks, providing additional shelter, and removing or managing predators.

Gannets nesting on a cliff.
Gannets nesting on a cliff. Image © Seppo Häkkinen.

“If you’re trying to protect a rare species in a small area, a lot of these actions are very feasible,” Henry Häkkinen, lead author of the report and scientist at ZSL, tells Mongabay. “But for large populations that are inaccessible, some of them definitely wouldn’t be, so there is not necessarily one good answer. It’s very context-dependent. The idea is that we’re providing a tool to allow people to make those decisions.”

Häkkinen says the motivation for putting this report together is to provide “anyone who works in conservation planning or policy or research” with information that can inform their work.

“The evidence behind what the greatest threats are [to seabirds] and what actions work and what doesn’t, is not actually that available — it’s very scattered in the scientific literature,” Häkkinen says. “So what we wanted to do is try and make this [information] as user-friendly and available as possible.”

Seabirds are considered to be one of the most threatened bird groups, according to a 2019 global assessment. Some of the most pressing threats include the depletion of food sources, predation by invasive species, and bycatch from fisheries. More recently, a global avian flu outbreak has also been causing high mortality levels among seabirds. Experts say climate change is expected to intensify many of these current stressors and introduce new challenges to seabird survival.

Two razorbills resting on a cliff.
Two razorbills resting on a cliff. Image © Seppo Häkkinen.

Antonio Vulcano, a marine officer at the NGO BirdLife International who contributed to the research, says the new report illustrates the urgency and necessity of taking action to protect seabirds.

“Climate change can no longer be thought of as a problem for the future, with its impacts already posing a dire threat to seabirds,” Vulcano tells Mongabay in an email.

“This document is a clear proof that the threat exerted by climate change will only exacerbate in next decades and that many seabird species will be impacted at a large scale if we don’t act immediately,” he adds. “Without effective implementation of concrete measures to tackle climate change and all the other human-induced threats, we will not manage to secure populations.”

While the future looks grim for many seabird species, Häkkinen says he believes there’s a pathway toward a livable future for seabirds.

“If we carry on our current trajectory and do nothing, these areas are at high risk of losing the species, and it can be very easy to feel fatalistic about it,” he says. “But although seabirds are quite delicate and sensitive, they’re also amazingly resilient and long-lived. So if we can help prop them through these bad years … the populations can still be viable in the long term, especially if we tackle climate change at its source.”

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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Banner image of a puffin flying © Seppo Häkkinen.


Häkkinen, H., Petrovan, S., Taylor, N. G., Sutherland, W. J., & Pettorelli, N. (2022). Climate change vulnerability and potential conservation actions: Seabirds in the North-East Atlantic. Retrieved from ZSL Institute of Zoology:

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