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Bring Back the Seabirds, Save the Climate

This story is original appeared on Inside Climate News and it is a part Climate Desk cooperation.

Seabirds evolved about 60 million years ago, as Earth’s continents drifted toward their current positions and modern oceans took shape. They spread over thousands of untouched islands in ever-widening seas. And as flying dinosaurs and giant omnivorous marine reptiles died out, seabirds also began to fill an ecological niche as ecosystem engineers.

They distribute nutrients, in the form of guano, that are beneficial to plankton, sea grass and coral reefs, which, in turn, nurture fish populations that eat seabirds and marine mammals in a cycle that forms a biological carbon pump. The stronger the pump, the more carbon dioxide it pushes into the seafloor sediment storage.

Seabird colonies of almost unimaginable size likely persisted through eons of profound climate change and geological upheavals of colliding continents, playing a profound role in the ocean’s carbon cycle. But even in their most remote island regions, they were quickly decimated by humans who colonized and industrialized the planet over the past 200 years.

According to some estimates, the total global population of seabirds has declined by as much as 90 percent during that time, with a 70 percent decline since 1950 alone. Seabirds are the most endangered group of birds and one of the most endangered species groups, according to some estimates. International Union for the Protection of Nature. Of the 346 species of seabirds, 97 are globally threatened, and another 35 are listed as near-threatened. Nearly half of all seabird species are known or suspected to be experiencing population decline.

Most of the damage came from invasive predators – the humans themselves, the rats, cats, dogs and pigs they brought with them as they exploited island after island. After millions of years of evolution without predators, the birds did not recognize the new species as a threat. They were particularly vulnerable because they do not breed as prolifically as many land birds and spend a long time nursing their flightless young on land.

There has also been direct human predation on an industrial scale, with the harvesting of seabird eggs for food, their guano for fertilizer, and the birds themselves for oil – along with seals, sea lions and whales – or as by-catch by commercial fishing vessels. In the Farallon Islands near San Francisco, home to the largest seabird nesting colony in the United States, the murre population dropped from 400,000 to 60,000 in just a few decades during the gold rush, as humans collected up to half a million eggs a year.

Today, the Farallon Islands are protected as part of a marine sanctuary, and nesting seabird colonies are recovering, helping to maintain the surrounding marine ecosystem, including great white sharks, apex predators that sometimes feed on the population of northern fur seals that have returned to the islands because they are protected . The rhinoceros, a relative of the puffin, has also made a comeback, and more than 20 endangered and threatened species—birds, reptiles, insects, marine mammals, and even sea turtles—live on and around the island.

The return has already begun

And there are hundreds of other seabird restoration projects around the world showing signs of success, he said Everything Spatz, a scientist at Pacific Rim Conservation, a nonprofit focused on ecosystem repair. Spatz was the lead author of the April 10 study Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which collected data from 851 restoration projects in 36 countries targeting 138 seabird species over the past 70 years.

The new study focused on efforts to actively restore bird populations, including social attraction methods, such as the use of baits, as well as direct relocation of young birds to new sites free of invasive predators. In more than 75 percent of restorations, target species visited the sites and began reproducing within two years.

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