New Zealand Has the Most Seabirds on the Planet, and 90 Percent Are at Risk

A government report blames fishing bycatch, pollution, and climate change for threatening the birds with extinction.
Eastern rockhopper penguins. (Photo: Hullwarren/Wikipedia)
Nov 7, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

A new report from the New Zealand government found that 90 percent of the country’s 92 seabird species—the highest concentration of seabirds on the planet—are threatened with extinction.

The seabird situation illustrates how the island nation and its unique wildlife are struggling in the crosshairs of climate change, exploitation of natural resources, and overdevelopment.

Among the most threatened species are the Antipodean albatross, the eastern rockhopper penguin, the Pitt Island shag, and the New Zealand fairy tern. Despite being legally protected in New Zealand, many of these species have falling populations. Much of the decline appears to be related to the fishing industry, which, according to the report, killed an estimated 5,000 seabirds in 2013, although that is down from 9,000 birds killed in 2003. The industry uses long lines and other gear that float close to the surface and can entangle and kill seabirds attracted to caught fish, bait, or fishing waste.

Seabirds are especially vulnerable to population disruptions because of their slow reproductive rates and because they usually lay only one egg at a time, said Hannah Nevins, seabird program director for the American Bird Conservancy, who was not involved in the report. They also tend to live on islands where invasive predators such as rats and cats can devastate local populations, a particular problem in New Zealand, where no native mammalian predators other than bats evolved.

“That life history strategy puts them at greater risk,” she said. “It’s harder for them to rebound when a mortality event happens.”

The report also found that a quarter of New Zealand’s marine mammals are threatened, including the Maui dolphin, the New Zealand sea lion, and the southern elephant seal.

The 70-page report, prepared by the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand, detailed the threats facing the country’s marine environment while also highlighting its economic value, which is about $2.8 billion. “We’re a maritime nation,” government statistician Liz MacPherson said in a statement. “Having healthy and resilient oceans is important for all New Zealanders and for our economy. Today’s marine environment report shows that our marine environment is facing a number of serious challenges.”

RELATED: Hundreds of Millions of Songbirds Are Disappearing

Although the report presented a great deal of information on the threats facing New Zealand’s marine environment, it also earned some criticism for not including some of the most up-to-date research into seabirds. “It’s a pretty lightweight report, actually,” said Green Party M.P. Eugenie Sage. “This report doesn’t have that level of detail, and it really should have, because this information was available several months ago.” She pointed to fisheries bycatch information collected by the data company Dragonfly Limited that covers one more year of seabird deaths than the government report does.

Sage noted that the issue of bycatch has been debated for years. While the industry has made some notable improvements, she said, it still kills thousands of seabirds a year because of a loophole in New Zealand law. “If protected species are caught accidentally while fishing, it’s not an offense,” she said. That’s not the case for terrestrial species.

She called the level of bycatch “unacceptable, because these are protected species, and they’re threatened with extinction.”

Nevertheless, Sage said she is hopeful that the report will raise awareness of these issues for the general public in New Zealand, which doesn’t typically see what is happening to marine animals firsthand. “If a forest has been cleared, it’s very easy to take the public to see the destruction, for people to be appalled, and to motivate them,” she said. “With seabirds, it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind.”

Nevins said the good news about seabirds worldwide is that progress is being made on bycatch and other issues. In the North Pacific, for example, fisheries’ bycatch of gulls, fulmars, and other seabirds has fallen from as high as 25,000 a year to a couple thousand birds a year, thanks to new technologies and policies. “That’s been like an order-of-magnitude decrease,” she said.

One of the biggest remaining problems, Nevins said, is that seabirds are migratory and often cross national boundaries, putting them in danger of illegal fisheries. “We need to look across these birds’ whole life cycles and address those kinds of threats,” she said.