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Seabirds Increasingly Targeting Fishing Vessels for Catch, UCC-led Study Finds

7th September 2023
Northern fulmar taking off from the water surface, Carrigfada Bay, Co Cork
Northern fulmar taking off from the water surface, Carrigfada Bay, Co Cork Credit: Jamie Darby

Seabirds are targeting fishing boats far more often for food, a new international study involving University College Cork (UCC) scientists has found.

UCC scientists worked with colleagues from Norway, Scotland and Iceland to track over 250 northern fulmars from across the North Atlantic over the last 16 years.

The team involved in the SEATRACK programme, as it is called, published their findings in Current Biology.

Lead author Jamie Darby of UCC’s MaREI centre, said the team used tiny 2.5g loggers mounted on the birds’ legs to record light, including artificial lights at night.

“Because fulmars can feed at any time, day or night, light signals recorded at night can reliably be attributed to fishing boats, particularly in heavily fished areas,” Darby explained.

"We looked at the prevalence of light recordings at night to determine how frequently seabirds were encountering vessels and how that changed over time,” he said.

They discovered that fulmars breeding across the wider North Atlantic area are increasingly encountering fishing boats, despite fishing fleet sizes decreasing over the same time period.

This suggests that encounters are not driven by increased numbers of vessels, but by birds targeting boats more often, the scientists concluded.

Previous research had shown that other seabird species have tended to switch to scavenging around vessels for catch or bait or both when their own food sources are depleted.

Mark Jessopp, also of UCC and co-author of the paper, said that “one possibility is that finding their usual food has become more difficult due to overfishing or habitat degradation”.

"Fulmars that didn’t frequently follow vessels actually migrated further and spent more time looking for food than those that relied more heavily on vessels, highlighting the advantage of following vessels to obtain predictable food,”he said.

The scientists noted that the “downside” of such behaviour is that the seabirds are increasingly becoming “bycatch”, due to being accidentally caught or entangled in fishing gears.

Bycatch is one of the main impacts on seabird populations, many of which are globally threatened, the scientists have said.

“This study provides further motivation to solve the bycatch issue and make fishing gears safer for marine life,”Darby said.

The full paper, entitled “Decadal increase in vessel interactions by a scavenging pelagic seabird across the North Atlantic”, can be found here.

Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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Marine Wildlife Around Ireland One of the greatest memories of any day spent boating around the Irish coast is an encounter with marine wildlife.  It's a thrill for young and old to witness seabirds, seals, dolphins and whales right there in their own habitat. As boaters fortunate enough to have experienced it will testify even spotting a distant dorsal fin can be the highlight of any day afloat.  Was that a porpoise? Was it a whale? No matter how brief the glimpse it's a privilege to share the seas with Irish marine wildlife.

Thanks to the location of our beautiful little island, perched in the North Atlantic Ocean there appears to be no shortage of marine life to observe.

From whales to dolphins, seals, sharks and other ocean animals this page documents the most interesting accounts of marine wildlife around our shores. We're keen to receive your observations, your photos, links and youtube clips.

Boaters have a unique perspective and all those who go afloat, from inshore kayaking to offshore yacht racing that what they encounter can be of real value to specialist organisations such as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) who compile a list of sightings and strandings. The IWDG knowledge base has increased over the past 21 years thanks in part at least to the observations of sailors, anglers, kayakers and boaters.

Thanks to the IWDG work we now know we share the seas with dozens of species who also call Ireland home. Here's the current list: Atlantic white-sided dolphin, beluga whale, blue whale, bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, Cuvier's beaked whale, false killer whale, fin whale, Gervais' beaked whale, harbour porpoise, humpback whale, killer whale, minke whale, northern bottlenose whale, northern right whale, pilot whale, pygmy sperm whale, Risso's dolphin, sei whale, Sowerby's beaked whale, sperm whale, striped dolphin, True's beaked whale and white-beaked dolphin.

But as impressive as the species list is the IWDG believe there are still gaps in our knowledge. Next time you are out on the ocean waves keep a sharp look out!