OSPAR Wild – Protecting the Amazon of the Atlantic
By Marguerite Tarzia, Maria Dias & Ana Carneiro, 2 Nov 2016
Following rigorous and highly innovative scientific analysis, BirdLife has submitted a landmark proposal to OSPAR, requesting international protected status for an area in the North-East Atlantic – an area described as a veritable ‘treasure trove’ of marine biodiversity. Marguerite Tarzia (BL Europe), Maria Dias (BL International) & Ana Carneiro (BL International), who steered this impressive collaboration of over 60 seabird scientists, share their exciting tales from the deep…
A map that holds the secrets of the wild high seas…a map that pinpoints the precise location of untold treasures – ‘X marks the spot!’ Sounds like you have dived right into a Jules Verne novel doesn’t it? Is this fabled Atlantis finally found? Are we 20,000 leagues under the sea? Well, here at BirdLife, we find science to be stranger, and more spectacular, than fiction. Welcome to the majestic ‘Evlanov Seamount & Basin’, a veritable treasure trove of marine biodiversity far out in the North Atlantic.
Following rigorous, and highly innovative, analysis by a massive collaboration of over 60 seabird scientists, our marine team has identified an ecologist’s paradise – an ocean hotspot so rich in sea life biodiversity it could be described as the ‘Amazon of the North-East Atlantic’. For one, it’s a seabird magnet, being the area of the high seas with both the highest number of bird species (it’s an important foraging ground for at least 18) and the highest number of individual birds. It is estimated, conservatively, that the area supports at least 2.9 million seabirds throughout the year. Moreover, the area has been found to be an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) for 12 species, including the threatened Atlantic Puffin, Bermuda Petrel, Northern Fulmar and Zino’s Petrel as well as long-distance migrants such as the indefatigable Arctic Tern, which undertakes the longest migration of any other animal.
And that’s not all. The area is also consistently frequented (and for long periods of time) by some of the ocean’s most iconic creatures: marine megafauna such as Blue and Mako Sharks, Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, and Leatherback Turtles. Sei Whales have also been tracked here from the Azores during their northward migration in summer. Interestingly, it appears that as these animals approach this unique area, changes in temperature and currents spur their natural instinct into action, prompting them to begin foraging activities.
So, how was this ecologist’s paradise found? The answer is beautifully simple: we followed the birds. Seabirds are an intrinsic part of the ‘circle of (marine) life’ – what flies above the waves can tell us a lot about what swims below. Also, as they are more easily monitored than their underwater counterparts, they are an ideal ‘homing beacon’ to use to identify important marine biodiversity sites – it’s a little like taking pigs out in search of truffles. Thanks to our Seabird Tracking Database – the largest collection of seabird tracking data in existence, built in collaboration with more than 160 scientists around the world – we were able to plot a direct course to this very special site by following over 2000 individual tracked birds.
In October, we presented these amazing findings to the OSPAR Convention (for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic) and proposed that the site be safeguarded with the internationally recognised designation of Marine Protected Area (MPA). If this proposal is accepted by OSPAR, the MPA would be the first of its kind in the high seas of the North East Atlantic to be identified using seabird data as the main source of evidence. Moreover, it would fill a major gap in the global network of marine protected areas. High seas areas are hugely important for seabirds, particularly as a key stopover during the migration period or as a final winter destination. This is an important rest and recovery time after the energetic breeding period. However, it is also a dangerous time and winter ‘seabird wrecks’ (i.e. when thousands of birds die due to severe conditions far out at sea) are well documented in the Atlantic.
Unfortunately, so far, very little has been done to either identify important biodiversity rich ‘high seas’ areas or to protect them. The matter is also further complicated when sites worthy of MPA status lie in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ). This is precisely the case with this proposed site – it lies in the ocean equivalent of no-man’s land. It is therefore vital to secure international cooperation on this front.
Our proposal was the just the first step and in the coming months, our search for ‘OSPAR Wild’ will highlight the ‘importance of being earnest’. We now wait, impatiently, with bated breath as 15 national governments (the signatories of the OSPAR Convention) slowly deliberate over our proposal. The scientific analysis clearly shows that this area is extremely important for seabirds and entirely merits protected status as an MPA. The governments in question need to now step up their game and answer a simple question: do they want to protect our marine environment or see it waste away while in the debating chamber?
Marguerite Tarzia is European Marine Conservation Officer, BirdLife Europe & Central Asia
Maria Dias is Senior Marine Science Officer, BirdLife International
Ana Carneiro is Marine Technical Officer, BirdLife International
For more information, contact Marguerite.Tarzia@birdlife.org
 OSPAR is named after the 1972 Oslo Convention on dumping waste at sea (OS) and the Paris Convention on land-based sources of marine pollution (PAR). It is a legislative instrument regulating international cooperation on environmental protection in the North-East Atlantic, involving the cooperation of the EU and 15 national governments: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.