Seabird data integration

Lead: Maria Dias, BirdLife International


Seabirds are a diverse group of birds specially adapted to live and prosper in the marine environment.  As a group, they are not only widely distributed but members of some species travel the length and breadth of the oceans throughout the year, from pole to pole and orient to occident.  Many species of seabird only return to land to nest and breed, while others occupy coastlines and habitats near the shore for most of their lives.  Seabirds tend to grow more slowly, mature later in life, live longer than land birds, and typically raise only one or two chicks per year.  These adaptations indicate that they thrive best in a stable environment in which sudden unpredictable changes are unlikely.  As a consequence, most seabird species are slow to recover from atypical perturbations that significantly reduce their number.

Significant declines in the population of some seabird species have been observed and have been attributed to human activities such as direct harvesting of eggs or adults, commercial fishing (where seabirds are caught unintentionally and their foodsource is depleted), and disturbance of nesting sites either directly or by introduced species that prey on birds or destroy their habitat (e.g., cats, rats, foxes and goats).  Efforts to minimise such impacts and reduce this trend in seabird populations are being implemented, with some success.  In addition, the movement and habits of birds while out at sea are also being recorded, thanks to improvements in technology that allow seabirds to be tracked using satellite tags.  This has meant that the precise position of certain individual seabirds can be studied over time, prompting a revolution in the understanding of seabird ecology.

Areas of the ocean can now be classified based on the habits of the seabirds that frequent them (e.g., foraging or resting areas).  By adding further layers of information, such as environmental variables at the ocean’s surface, correlations can be identified that inform why and when certain areas are more important to birds than others, as well as areas where seabirds are at greatest risk of interacting with detrimental human activities.  This work aims to do exactly that, using the seabird distribution data identified during the EBSA regional workshops held in the Indian Ocean.  Integrating available environmental data layers with seabird tracking data will allow the development of a model that can predict the distribution and abundance of seabirds under real and simulated scenarios, including those predicted by climate change.  Understanding how different areas of the ocean are interconnected and whether connections are maintained under different scenarios will inform the location of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), which will in turn feed into the EBSA process and the design of a network of marine protected areas resilient to change.  Lessons learnt will be applicable to other parts of the world, and pertinent policy briefs are to be developed to safeguard the principles of seabird protection and preservation.


  • To develop methodology to integrate seabird distribution data within EBSA descriptions.
  • To promote the use of seabird data to support the management options of national and international authorities.


This work will be completed through the following actions:

  • Creation and dissemination of story maps for existing EBSAs in the Indian Ocean that have been described based primarily on seabird data.
  • Compilation and rationalisation of all seabird data records submitted to the EBSA process during its Indian Ocean regional workshops.  Acquired datasets to be stored in the Seabird Tracking Database, a global repository for seabird distribution data.
  • In consultation with regional seabird experts, development of methodologies for the assessment and analysis of acquired seabird data.  Perform new analyses to identify IBAs and promote them as standardised inputs to the EBSA process and other relevant regional initiatives.
  • Development of models of seabird distribution and abundance in the Indian Ocean to assess their response to climate change.  Results to help inform and guide discussion on climate change adaptation strategies for seabirds in the region.
  • Consolidation of global seabird tracking data and promotion of their inclusion via the IBA process into MPA proposals.
  • Analysis of the impacts of a range of potential pressures and threats to EBSAs supported by seabird data, followed by a review of management options to mitigate threats to seabirds at the global level.  Development of policy briefs to capture the results from both the analysis and the review.


The concept of IBAs, themselves based on sound science and internationally agreed criteria, together with their development and promotion as a standardised input to the EBSA process is at the core of GOBI’s remit to support the uptake and application of EBSAs.  This work will lead the way in the consolidation of information relevant to the preservation of seabirds in the Indian Ocean, and set the course for the same process to be carried out in other regions as suitable datasets become available.  The forward-looking elements of the work package will provide the best possible chance for the creation of an effective and ‘future-proof’ network of Marine Protected Areas for seabirds in the Indian Ocean.

Progress to date

The outputs from a workshop to re-evaluate existing Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) in the Indian Ocean – in light of the considerable increase in seabird tracking data available – are under consideration by the West Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA), with the intention that IBAs will feature as an important information layer in efforts to ascribe Critical Habitats by national governments of the region.  All knowledge and data consolidated by this process feed into the models of seabird distribution and abundance in the Indian Ocean that are under development.

Seabird Tracking Database (as of April 2020)

In parallel to the work that focuses on the Indian Ocean, support has been given to other initiatives further afield.  Seabird data contributed to the discussion and decisions made during the most recent EBSA regional workshops, including the Black and Caspian Seas, the Baltic Sea, and the northeast Atlantic Ocean.  In addition, seabird data are at the forefront of a High Seas MPA proposal in the North Atlantic Ocean, led by OSPAR.  A global assessment of threats to seabird species has been completed, with the results now being integrated with the EBSA portfolio.