How Ocean Buoys Can Help Seabird Conservation

There are plenty of organizations that are using ocean buoys to track and conserve marine wildlife. Some researchers have started to use this technology for creatures above the water, too: sea birds.

Seabird conservation efforts increasingly rely on marine buoy technology to track and record at-risk species. Ocean buoys can be used for a variety of conservation purposes, including the collection of data from previously hard to reach parts of the ocean to refine and improve conservation projects. Buoys can also supply data to improve the planning of offshore wind farms, as well as help seabirds avoid becoming victims of commercial fishing. 

Here are few ways that research organizations can take advantage of ocean buoys to help improve seabird conservation. 

Why are seabirds endangered?

Seabirds are the most threatened species-group of birds worldwide. More than 30% of all seabird species are threatened or endangered; five are thought to be extinct. 

There are quite a few contributing factors to seabird endangerment, many of which are the result of human activities. Commercial fishing not only forces seabirds to compete for increasingly scarce sources of food, but also endangers fish with nets and hooks. Approximately 300,000 seabirds are killed each year due to fish hooks and nets in the ocean, including 100,000 albatrosses — many species of which currently face extinction. 

Habitat destruction and disturbance also put seabirds at risk. The use of coastal areas for recreation and commercial purposes prevents birds from breeding successfully. Climate change and water resources also contribute to shore erosion and loss of habitats, not to mention putting a strain on seabirds’ food sources. Ocean acidification and climate change impacts shellfish populations and can increase harmful algae blooms. 

Lastly, seabirds face the acute danger of pollution and plastics in the ocean. The massive gyre of plastic floating in the Pacific kills many seabirds and other marine organisms. Oil spills and other toxic waste in the ocean presents intensify the risk to endangered and threatened seabirds. 

Seabirds are important indicators of ocean and climate health. “Seabirds are emerging as the best indicator species in many marine environments, and their role in predicting environmental change and determining management strategies is becoming progressively more important as their sensitivity to environmental change is putting their populations at risk more than ever before,” wrote the Shark Research Center at the University of Miami.  

Seabirds are an important link in food chains, in addition to providing important data on the health of the ocean — which is inevitably linked to human health. What are some organizations doing to help improve seabird conservation?

How buoys can help with seabird conservation

Seabirds play a critical role in marine ecosystems, and conserving endangered seabird species isn’t only a priority for biodiversity but a mandate for climate health. New ocean buoys technology can play a role in making sure these important creatures are protected. 

First, marine buoys are being deployed to prevent birds from diving and getting caught in gillnets, one of the threats presented by commercial fishing. A team of researchers developed a floating buoy that “displays large, obvious ‘looming eyes’ that can be seen from a long way off. As the buoy bobs in the water, the tall pole sways conspicuously, and the eyes rotate in the wind.” Researchers hope this figure will deter birds from flying toward the nets. 

Buoys can also help mitigate the threat of habitat destruction caused by the establishment of offshore wind and other renewable energy installations. Some researchers are using marine buoys to record GPS and time–depth recorder (TDR) data and identify diving activity associated with foraging, a crucial aspect of seabird behavior. This data can then be used to plan any new builds where habitats won’t be disruptive. 

Finally, buoys provide important data that informs climate change models and gives researchers a better sense of where and how seabirds are under threat of endangerment. Distributed networks of low-cost nodes can be set up away from the coast and in deeper water, where previously scientists weren’t able to observe. How does this help seabirds? 

At-sea data provides richer, more detailed information about seabirds than can be collected on land, including

  • Species-habitat relationships, such as how species are distributed in and around the ocean; 
  • The abundance of a certain species, which can’t easily be measured if the species doesn’t live in colonies; 
  • Community insight, including community composition, and insight into predation, competition, and commensalism;
  • Insight into marine ecosystems: how do seabirds integrate with marine ecosystems on a large spatial scale?

As climate change progresses, buoys can greatly improve the quality and quantity of at-sea data. Buoys can increase the amount of data collected on this important indicator species, providing a more reliable and consistent source of information than observations made from ships traversing the same shipping lanes as scheduled. 

Seabirds play an important role in maintaining the health of ocean ecosystems. Seabird species are in dire need of protection. Collecting more high-quality data is a good first step in building protections for endangered seabird species. Learn more about Sofar’s marine sensing devices and how we’re working to share data and resources on marine climate change.

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