Seabirds play a vital role in helping fisherfolk to find fish
July 2, 2019
Respecting our Seabird Neighbours in the Grenadines

Two organizations, Environmental Protection in the Caribbean (EPIC) and Science Initiative for Environmental Conservation and Education (SCIENCE), are working with communities to raise awareness of the value of seabirds, address the issues which threaten their survival, and develop a long-term monitoring and enforcement programme of offshore islands. Residents of the Grenadines and fishing communities depend on the ocean, as do seabirds. It is a shared common space.

A BIRD EGG resting in its nest

The relationship between fisherfolk and seabirds is as ancient as fishing itself. Fishermen in the Grenadines rely on seabirds to find fish, understand weather patterns, and navigate the seas. In the past, seabirds, their chicks and eggs traditionally served as an additional source of nutrition, although this activity is now strictly prohibited.

Seabirds, like fishermen, are very versatile as they are fisherfolk themselves. They can walk on land, soar vast distances and even dive and swim underwater. Seabirds are long-lived, many mate for life, and they spend the majority of their lives battling weather and human activities, returning to land only to nest and raise chicks for a couple of months per year.

The Grenadines archipelago is likely the most important region for seabirds in the entire Lesser Antilles, hosting 14 breeding species with over 60,000 pairs of seabirds. Some offshore islands of Grenada and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, such as Battowia, Petit Canouan, Diamond Rock, Les Tantes and Frigate Island each harbour thousands of seabird nests. The seabirds that are born in the Grenadines return each year to the same islands. These islands are where the birds are at home and raise their families. Due to the sheer abundance of nests, the Grenadines are special for seabirds on a global scale.

But life at sea is hard. Despite their versatility, seabirds are also amongst the most vulnerable and threatened types of birds. Globally, seabirds have declined approximately 70% over the past 60 years, with loss in tropical areas believed to be 90-99%. Although this loss is not well understood in the Grenadines, many fishermen observe that there are fewer birds nowadays. Seabirds are exposed to a variety of threats, encompassing the air, land and water. Some of them migrate long distances through regions where they have little or no protection. They must travel farther to find fish as fish stocks decline, and some eat plastics that float on the ocean that they mistake for food which can ultimately kill them. Some of them, therefore, do not make it home.

Life on land is hard too. When the seabirds return to their islands, they may find that it has been developed or burned. They may encounter animals, such as rats and grazing livestock, which are not native to their islands, change the habitat and trample or eat their eggs and chicks. Despite nesting here for thousands of years, they may no longer consider some of their islands a safe place to return. They have been pushed into the most remote areas in an effort to stay alive.

Although some seabirds can breed throughout the year, the bulk of nesting activities in the Grenadines takes place in the beginning of May until the end of July, which naturally coincides with illegal poaching activities. However, most seabirds raise only one chick per year. This means that if the egg or chick is taken, an entire year will pass before the seabird has another chance to contribute to the next generation. When a seabird is flushed from the nest due to disturbance, the exposed chick or egg can die in as little as several minutes in the hot tropical sun. Sadly, if birds lose their egg or chick, the population will continue to go down.

Although this harvest is considered by some to be a tradition, it is prohibited by the Wildlife Acts of both St Vincent and the Grenadines and of Grenada, and therefore considered to be a poaching offense punishable by law. Moreover, much of the harvesting occurs in official Wildlife Reserves, such as Battowia and Petit Canouan, where harming any native species is illegal.

The seabirds are now raising their chicks in the Grenadines for the annual breeding season. It is vital to respect the seabirds and avoid disturbing them, killing them or taking their chicks and eggs as they struggle to rebuild their dwindling populations. If each of us does our part to make life easier for our seabird neighbours, we can ensure they will survive for many generations to come and continue to call the Grenadines their home.

This project is made possible through support from USAID and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.