Ewan Wakefield had been sailing across the North Atlantic for days when the ocean suddenly greened. A phytoplankton bloom had emerged at the edge of an oceanic cold front roughly 1,000 kilometers south of Greenland, attracting precisely what Wakefield was hoping to find. Dozens of seabirdsâ€”great shearwaters, fulmars, and othersâ€”appeared, swinging in high arcs near the vessel, bombing the sea surface, and â€œfeeding like crazy,â€ he says. â€œIt is what we call a hotspot.â€
Seabirds comprise one of the most threatened groups of vertebrates. Almost half of all seabirds are in decline. Until recently, scientists knew relatively little about the lives of the birds that dwell on the open North Atlantic. These species spend most of their existence beyond the continental shelves, where life is diffuse and at-sea surveys are costly and dangerous. Not knowing where they live or feed has made protecting the birds nearly impossible. But a group of about 80 scientists, including Wakefield, a biologist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, has been scouring the North Atlantic to find out more. In the process, theyâ€™ve identified an ocean habitat teeming with birds.
In an area spanning nearly 600,000 square kilometersâ€”reaching from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and Labrador to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and from the Azores to the Labrador Basin off Greenlandâ€”scientists have found the highest concentration of seabirds ever documented on the open ocean. According to the researchers, an estimated 2.9 to five million seabirds visit the area yearly.
â€œIt is a surprise,â€ says Wakefield, who surveyed the area in 2017. â€œThe North Atlantic is bounded by some of the most developed countries in the world. And we werenâ€™t doing that research in our backyard.â€
The discovery, announced in aÂ seriesÂ ofÂ papersÂ published this year, has already prompted a multinationalÂ agreementÂ declaring that â€œthis vitally important area for seabirdsâ€ needs to be protected.
â€œI donâ€™t think anyone really thought it would be this big or this many birds consistently using the site,â€ says Tammy Davies, a conservation scientist and marine science coordinator at the conservation nonprofit BirdLife International, who led the research that identified the area.
Davies and her colleagues at BirdLife International first became aware of the outsized importance of this stretch of the North Atlantic in 2016, when they began mappingÂ dataÂ from previous studies that had tracked 1,500 birds from 56 breeding colonies. The area jumped out. At least 21 species were using it, in many cases for hunting and foraging in the months after the energy-intensive mating seasons. Some, such as the great shearwater, were in molt, a vulnerable period when birds shed and regrow feathers. Wakefield says the birds are likely drawn to the areaâ€™s oceanic frontsâ€”where the Gulf Stream abuts cold northern watersâ€”which are rich with phytoplankton, small fish, and crustaceans.
â€œThereâ€™s always some hesitancy when extrapolating beyond a few tracked individuals,â€ says Autumn-Lynn Harrison, an ecologist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center who was not involved in the research. â€œBut thereâ€™s no doubt that the absolute number of species that use this place is real.Â â€¦Â This place is very important.â€
The agreement to establish this area as the North Atlantic Current and Evlanov Seamount Marine Protected Area (NACES MPA) was made by the Oslo-Paris Convention on the protection of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR), an international body representing 15 countries and the European Union. OSPAR was the organization that established the first network of marine reserves on the high seas in 2010, protecting areas beyond the reach of national jurisdictions. The NACES MPA is the conventionâ€™s 11th high-seas reserve and its largest. Yet OSPARâ€™s declaration only marks that the area should be protectedâ€”exactly what shape that protection will take has yet to be decided.
â€œItâ€™s a starting point,â€ says Erich Hoyt, a research fellow with the international NGO Whale and Dolphin Conservation, who has written extensively on marine protected areas. â€œEvery protected area starts out on paper, and itâ€™s what you make of it that becomes something.â€
OSPARâ€™s high-seas reserves offer some protection, but because there is at present no global consensus on how to regulate the open ocean, OSPARâ€™s powers are extremely limited. It does not have sole jurisdiction in its protected areas, and it cannot ban longline fishing or seafloor mining, which are managed by separate organizations.
â€œThere are lots of opportunities for ensuring [the NACES MPA] doesnâ€™t become a paper park, though,â€ says Davies. OSPARâ€™s members have committed to monitoring human activities in the area and addressing new threats as they arise. Carrying this out falls to the individual governments that make up OSPAR.
When Wakefield zigzagged across the region four years ago, he noticed a small number of cargo ships and longliners. â€œWe also saw fishing gearâ€”ghost gearâ€”floating around out there, which would still be catching birds,â€ he says, but given that itâ€™s so far from shore, the NACES area sees relatively few impacts.
Still, as global fish stocks shrink, pressure to develop fisheries in international waters is expected to increase. Threats from deep-sea mining, fossil fuel extraction, and climate change arenâ€™t going away either. So, while the NACES MPA is unblemished compared to many parts of the ocean, the challenge will be to keep it that way.
This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at hakaimagazine.com.
Related stories from Hakai Magazine: