Sooty shearwater (Puffinus griseus) are amazing and deserve your vote in Forest and Bird’s Bird of the Year competition. They make one of the longest known bird migrations, flying an annual round trip of 64,000 kms across the entire Pacific Ocean; from New Zealand to feeding grounds off the coasts of Japan, Alaska and California, and back.
The sooty shearwater has been one of the world’s most abundant seabirds, but climate change and fishing bykill are reducing their numbers. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) classifies sooty shearwater as ‘declining’ on their Red List of Threatened Species. During the last 20 years the number of sooty shearwaters of the California coast has dropped by more than 90 percent.
Sooty shearwaters only breed in New Zealand, Australia, Chile and the Falkland Islands. The largest breeding populations are in New Zealand, with the biggest colony is on Snares Island. The number of birds here has dropped by an estimated 1.2 million birds between 1996 and 2001. (Scott, D et al, 2008) How we protect the species affects the whole world’s population.
After breeding in southern New Zealand, sooty shearwaters migrate north for a summer in the north Pacific Ocean. Climate change is making this epic migration more difficult. Rising sea temperatures affect ocean productivity and the availability of their preferred food species. Climate fluctuations such as the El Nino/La Nina oscillation cause shifts in wind and currents which affect bird movements, distribution and survival. Fewer birds are returning to New Zealand to breed.
U.S. research suggests higher ocean temperatures and stronger, more frequent storms are affecting breeding success with coastal erosion destroying breeding sites.
The other major cause of falling sooty shearwater numbers is by-catch and death in commercial trawl and longline fisheries, especially the southern trawl fisheries for squid and the hoki fishery.
Sooty shearwaters dive deep – up to 60 metres – to catch squid, krill and fish. This makes them vulnerable to being caught in trawl nets and on the hooks attached to commerical longlines.
In 2013/2014 an estimated 363 sooty shearwaters were caught on trawlers fishing in New Zealand waters. Sooty shearwaters were among the estimated 2,277 seabirds caught, and usually killed, in New Zealand’s trawl fisheries. Nearly 3,000 seabirds were caught in our longline fisheries in 2013/14. Having more than 5,000 seabirds die annually as a result of commercial fishing is unacceptable.
The sooty shearwater needs our help. Its plight symbolises the ecological damage caused by climate change and commercial fishing. Vote sooty shearwater in ‘Bird of the Year’ to recognise the distinctive characteristics of this unique bird and acknowledge the change we need to protect this species from further decline.
- TerraNature: The incredible journey of sooty shearwater from New Zealand to the north Pacific for an endless summer
- NZ birds online: Sooty shearwater
- Protected species bycatch in NZ fisheries
- Scott, D et al (2008) “Decline of sooty shearwaters, Puffinus griseus, on the Snares, New Zealand” in Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tamania 142 (1) at p 185