Huge database shows seabirds' incredible journeys around the world's oceans

A world map showing the entire five million data points for the world's seabirds, as provided by 120 research institutions. Photo: BirdLife International.
A world map showing the entire five million data points for the world's seabirds, as provided by 120 research institutions. Photo: BirdLife International.
The Global Seabird Tracking Database – one of the biggest marine conservation collaborations in the world – has just passed 5 million records.  

The announcement of this landmark figure was made at the World Seabird Conference, taking place in Cape Town, South Africa. The database – originally called ‘Tracking Ocean Wanderers’ – was established in 2003, when records of the movements of 16 species of albatross and petrel were brought together for the first time. From albatrosses to penguins, the database now holds more than five times as many species, provided by over 120 research institutions.

Seabirds have some of the most extreme and fascinating life histories in the animal kingdom. We know that Arctic Terns have the longest migration of any animal, migrating from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again in a single year, and covering more than 50,000 miles in the process. Others such as Wandering Albatross may spend up to six years at sea before returning to its colony.

The information in the tracking database is helping the global marine community gain more insights into the lives of seabirds in all the world’s oceans. Each new study adds to our knowledge of how and why seabirds use the oceans, often surprising us in the distances covered, the routes that are travelled and the speed with which they get there.

Information revealed by the database includes:

• The individual bird tracked for the longest period of time was a juvenile Tristan Albatross, from 21 December 2013 to 07 January 2015, during which time it travelled 116,00 miles –equating to nearly 310 miles every day for 383 days.
• Data have been collected over at least a 20-year period for five species, giving us unprecedented insights into how birds use the ocean over time. Magellanic Penguin data covers the 26-year period from 1989 to 2015.
• Cory’s and Scopoli’s Shearwaters, Northern Gannet and Black-browed Albatross are the best studied species in terms of most data points and tracks
• More than half the data relate to threatened (that is, Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable) or Near Threatened seabirds – species for which conservation efforts are most pressing.

These data have not only furthered our understanding of seabird ecology, but are increasingly being used to identify the most important places for seabirds at sea and ensure their protection. BirdLife has been very effective in driving some of these efforts, which have resulted in new Marine Protected Areas in Portugal, Spain and New Zealand (among others), as well as the identification of sites where the risk of accidental capture in fisheries is highest. This has led to adoption of seabird conservation measures by all the key tuna management organisations to help tackle the problem, one of the major threats to seabirds globally.  

Conservation work has shown that, when measures are implemented, by-catch reductions can be dramatic. A good example is in South Africa, where BirdLife's Albatross Task Force team have helped to cut by-catch by 95 per cent in the Hake trawl fishery.

Dr Cleo Small, who has led BirdLife’s work to get seabird by-catch conservation measures adopted by the high seas tuna management organisations, said: “It’s hard to imagine that we could have convinced fisheries managers to put seabird by-catch on the agenda without the seabird tracking data. It’s truly been the cornerstone of our efforts to prevent the tragedy of seabird by-catch”.

It is anticipated that the database will continue to grow, which is vital given the parlous state of many seabird populations and the increasing number of threats they face at sea. Dr Maria Dias, who manages the database for BirdLife international, said “We are getting new data submissions all the time, building an ever-improving picture of what the world’s seabirds get up to. It is my hope that governments across the world will use this valuable collective resource to turn around the fortunes of seabirds across the globe”.
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