North Atlantic - In the Middle of the Atlantic, an Overlooked Seabird Hotspot
International regulators are looking to protect the key seabird feeding ground as a high-seas marine protected area.
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 seabirds—great shearwaters, fulmars, and others—appeared, swinging in high arcs near the vessel, bombing the sea surface, and “feeding like crazy,” he says. “It is what we call a hotspot.”
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, they’ve identified an ocean habitat teeming with birds.
In an area spanning nearly 600,000 square kilometers—reaching from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and Labrador to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and from the Azores to the Labrador Basin off Greenland—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.
“It is a surprise,” says Wakefield, who surveyed the area in 2017. “The North Atlantic is bounded by some of the most developed countries in the world. And we weren’t doing that research in our backyard.”