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Alarming answer to dead sea birds

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    Alarming answer to dead sea birds By Mark Townsend and Richard Sadler of The Observer From the June 28 edition of the Otago Daily Times UNTIL now, their deaths
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 1, 2004
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      Alarming answer to dead sea birds
      By Mark Townsend and Richard Sadler of The Observer
      From the June 28 edition of the Otago Daily Times

      UNTIL now, their deaths have defied explanation. What caused
      hundreds of seemingly healthy sea birds to perish on the North Sea
      has baffled scientists since the discovery of their corpses on the
      east coast of England this spring. Fears of a major pollution
      incident such as an oil slick were quickly dispelled.

      But the mystery is close to being solved and the answer has stunned
      ornithologists: the North Sea is heating up at an alarming rate. The
      broody expanse of water, famous for its violent storms and freak
      waves, is slowly being transformed.

      Using the oldest maritime data in the world, scientists have found
      that climate change is ridding the North Sea of its precious stocks
      of plankton, the microscopic organisms on which all life in the sea
      depends. As the very building blocks of the food chain disappear,
      fish and the birds that feed on them, such as the puffin and
      guillemot, are starving to death in what has been their natural home
      for thousands of years. New research from the Sir Alistair Hardy
      Foundation for Ocean Science in Plymouth, southwest England, which
      has been monitoring plankton around the British Isles for more than
      70 years, reveals that the North Sea is undergoing a major "regime
      shift".

      Foundation director Dr Chris Reid said: "What's happening in the
      North Sea is it's becoming more like the east coast of Spain. As
      temperatures get warmer, we are starting to see a pattern that is
      more typical of what you might see in the Mediterranean." The
      foundation's concern is supported by another set of findings
      detailing how the sudden change of the North Sea is impacting on
      Britain's sea birds, many of whom breed in internationally recognised
      sites.

      Sea-bird colonies on the Yorkshire coast and the Shetland Islands
      are headed for their worst breeding season on record. So far, a
      number of colonies have failed to produce any young at all. Starving
      chicks screeching for food from their cliff nests along the eastern
      coast of Britain are an increasingly common sight to alarmed
      bird-watchers. In the Shetlands alone, thousands of kittiwakes and
      guillemots, regarded as among the hardiest of species, have failed to
      return to old nesting sites.

      Martin Heubeck, a researcher from Aberdeen University who has
      studied sea birds on Shetland for 28 years, said: "There just isn't
      enough food. Until now, the North Sea has offered an ideal nesting
      place for 21 of the UK's 24 species of sea bird, mainly because of
      the abundance of sea food thrown up by the cool tide of the North Sea
      mixing with the warmer waters of the Atlantic. The demise of cod
      stocks in the North Sea triggered the first concern that the sea's
      ecosystem was changing, though the effects of overfishing were blamed.

      A BBC television programme, Countryfile , has provided evidence
      that sea birds are being wiped out by the effects of climate change
      and confirm that a new and far greater threat has emerged. "The whole
      food web is being unravelled by climate change and this could
      fundamentally be the biggest change in the North Sea since it was
      created 10,000 years ago," said Euan Dunn, head of marine policy for
      the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

      UK government officials, already nervous over the potential impact
      of global warming, are similarly worried. Environment Minister Elliot
      Morley said government-funded research was coming to the same
      "fundamental" conclusion as that of the foundation. "It does appear
      that there is a migration of plankton which is moving north into the
      colder waters and that the North Sea is progressively warming. This
      is very important information," he said.

      The rate of cold-water plankton migration though, according to the
      Plymouth-based scientists, is astonishing, suggesting that the vital
      food supply may have drifted up to 1000km further north already,
      almost the entire length of Britain.

      Average sea temperatures throughout the North Sea vary from about
      4degC up to 8degC. However, an astonishing 4degC increase in winter
      sea temperatures has been recorded in recent years, a rise that
      experts predict will escalate to Mediterranean-style temperatures
      that average above 20degC during summer.

      Some have taken comfort in the findings for their role in explaining
      why up to 250 guillemots, puffins, razorbills and fulmars were washed
      ashore on the English coast in March. Up to 200 dead birds were found
      on the beaches off northern France and Belgium around the same time.
      It was impossible to gauge how many had sunk to the seabed.

      The previous year scores of dead sea birds drifted ashore off
      Aberdeen in Scotland, one of the North Sea's principal ports.
      Similarly, evidence that the North Sea's food chain is collapsing
      might explain the new phenomenon of puffins switching from a fish
      diet to smaller birds.

      Certainly it provides a reason why warm-water fish like squid,
      pilchards and the red mullet are becoming increasingly common in the
      North Sea. - Guardian Newspapers

      Monday, 28-June 2004



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