Photo: Kim Abel, naturarkivet.no

Seabirds

Norway’s marine and coastal waters are some of the most productive in the world, and support a rich and varied bird life. There are especially important seabird habitats in areas north of the Arctic Circle. Norway therefore has a major responsibility for seabird management.

The Environment Agency provides scientific advice and is coordinating the development of an integrated, ecosystem-based management regime for Norway's marine and coastal waters. Seabirds are an important component of marine ecosystems.
The Agency is also responsible for management of seabird populations in Norway, including Svalbard. As Norway shares so many seabird populations with other countries, this involves a number of challenges.

Valuable resources

Seabirds have always been important resources in Norway, as they have been in many other countries. Historically, seabirds and their eggs were a vital part of the diet and an economic resource, whereas today they are seen mainly as an important component of properly functioning marine and coastal ecosystems and as an attractive feature of a dynamic coastal culture.

Norway is responsible for an estimated six million breeding pairs of seabirds, or about 23 % of all seabirds that breed in the Northeast Atlantic. The mainland and islands north of the Arctic Circle are particularly important for seabirds. In addition, about 1.5 million seabirds breed in the Russian part of the Barents Sea, and spend part of the year in Norwegian waters. The Barents Sea supports some of the largest concentrations of seabirds in the world – an estimated 20 million seabirds in the summer months. Many of these populations are nationally or internationally important, making this a globally significant seabird area.

It is estimated that there are three million breeding pairs of seabirds in Svalbard, and about 2.4 million pairs in mainland Norway north of the Arctic Circle. Norway thus has a major international responsibility for seabird management.

Seabirds are vulnerable

Seabirds are a vulnerable group, and are under pressure in a number of different ways. Threats include oil pollution, organic pollutants and other hazardous substances, food shortages resulting from overfishing, bycatches, disturbance of nesting sites, predators, alien species, climate change, and habitat degradation and fragmentation.

Populations of most seabirds are tending to decline because of a combination of human activities. Moreover, they are particularly vulnerable to climate change, which disturbs the balance of marine ecosystems and alters the availability of prey species on which seabirds feed.

Many seabirds have specialised feeding habits and are at the top of food chains. This explains why they are sensitive to pollution, climate change and changes in food supplies. It also means they are useful indicators of the health of coastal ecosystems: it is possible to use seabird numbers as a basis for predicting changes in other key populations, for example the size of fish stocks.

Advice and information

An integrated, ecosystem-based management system is needed to safeguard seabird populations. This means that many different sectors must take their share of the responsibility for ensuring that viable populations of all the different species are maintained.

The Environment Agency needs reliable documentation of ecosystem dynamics and the state of ecosystems in order to play its part in their management and provide sound advice and information.

The Agency works to ensure that all those involved to play their part in closing existing gaps in knowledge. Other important tasks are to develop a common understanding of what integrated management of seabirds involves and to raise awareness of the importance of seabirds and their direct links with marine ecosystems.

What is meant by seabirds?

Seabirds include all the species that obtain most of their food from coastal and marine areas, either all year round or for large parts of the year.

Seabirds do not belong to a particular systematic group, but they all show similarities in behaviour, ecological strategies and habitat use. They include divers, grebes, petrels and shearwaters, gannets, cormorants, geese and ducks, waders, gulls, terns and auks.

It is difficult to say precisely how many seabird species are found in Norwegian waters, because this depends on exactly how they are defined, but a reasonable answer is that there are 57 true seabirds, of which 28 are marine all year round. In addition, some species may use marine habitats at times and others are only present in Norwegian waters at certain times of year. If these are included, Norway can be said to have about 80 species of seabirds. Seabirds can be divided into groups of ecologically similar species:

  • Pelagic pursuit-diving: razorbill (Alca torda), common guillemot (Uria aalge), Brünnich's guillemot (Uria lomvia), little auk (Alle alle)
  • Pelagic surface-feeding: gannet (Sula bassana), fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), storm petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus), Leach's petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa), lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus), Sabine's gull (Xema sabini), kittiwake ( Rissa tridactyla)
  • Coastal surface-feeding: common gull (Larus canus), herring gull (Larus argentatus), great black-backed gull (Larus marinus), glaucous gull (Larus hyperboreus), ivory gull (Pagophila eburnea), black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), great skua (Stercorarius skua), Arctic skua (Stercorarius parasiticus)
  • Coastal pursuit-diving: red-throated diver (Gavia stellata), black-throated diver (Gavia arctica), great northern diver (Gavia immer), white-billed diver (Gavia adamsii), Slavonian grebe (Podiceps auritus), great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus), red-necked grebe (Podiceps grisegena), cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis), red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator), goosander (Mergus merganser), Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea), common tern (Sterna hirundo), black guillemot (Cepphus grylle)
  • Coastal benthic diving: goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), scaup (Aythya marila), common scoter (Melanitta nigra), velvet scoter (Melanitta fusca), long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis), common eider (Somateria mollissima), king eider (Somateria spectabilis),Steller's eider (Polysticta stelleri)
  • Coastal dabbling: mute swan (Cygnus olor), brent goose (Branta bernicla), barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis), greylag goose (Anser anser), pink-footed goose (Anser brachyrhynchus), shelduck (Tadorna tadorna), mallard (Anas platyrhynchos).

International management of seabirds

Norway is responsible for large seabird populations, and plays an important role in many regional and international bodies that are involved in seabird management.

Norway plays an active part as a coastal state in international cooperation to monitor and improve the state of the environment in its regional seas. This includes working with the other North Sea states on protection of the North Sea area through the system of North Sea Conferences and Declarations.
Norway is also a party to the OSPAR Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic. The work of both these cooperation forums includes coordinating seabird monitoring activities.
The Barents cooperation and Norway's environmental cooperation with Russia focus on further development and improvement of Russian environmental management and on cooperation in specific areas, including mapping and monitoring seabirds.
Regional and international cooperation forums Norway has joined and that are involved in seabird management include:
• the Joint Norwegian-Russian Commission on Environmental Protection, which has included separate working groups on the marine environment and seabirds since 1989.
• The North Sea Conferences, the Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers all regularly discuss seabirds in a joint Nordic context. One product of their work is the Action plan for seabirds in Western-Nordic areas, which was published in 2010.
• The OSPAR Convention. As a party to the convention, Norway has a special responsibility for species and habitats that are threatened in Norway. Threatened seabird species include Steller's eider and a subspecies of the lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus fuscus).
• The Arctic Council. Seabirds are included in the mandates of two of its working groups, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) and Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF). CAFF has established the Circumpolar Seabird Expert Group (CBird), which focuses on the management of seabirds in the Arctic. One of its objectives is to develop management plans for selected circumpolar species and groups such as guillemot and eider species and the ivory gull. Another CBird project looked at "Birds of Arctic Conservation Concern" – species that migrate out of the Arctic in winter .
• The Bern Convention, the Bonn Convention and agreements adopted under it, the Ramsar Convention and others.
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