BirdLife leads €3.5 million project safeguarding Shearwaters at land and sea

€3.45 million LIFE PanPuffinus! brings together BirdLife partners to address threats to Yelkouan and Balearic Shearwaters at land and sea

A Yelkouan shearwater
A Yelkouan shearwater

BirdLife Malta has launched another EU-funded scientific study which aims to improve the conservation status of two endemic seabird species in the Mediterranean Basin.

The LIFE PanPuffinus! project is a unique transboundary collaboration which will protect two threatened Mediterranean seabirds, the Yelkouan Shearwater and the Balearic Shearwater, through a joint large-scale conservation partnership.

After successfully running three seabird-focused LIFE projects, BirdLife Malta has now joined forces with its BirdLife Partners from another four countries (France, Greece, Portugal and Spain), as well as another two government entities (one in Malta and one in Greece), for a unique Mediterranean-wide collaboration for the conservation of these two seabird species.

The project will tackle two major threats that these seabirds encounter throughout their entire life cycle, both terrestrial and marine: predation by invasive mammal species on land, and accidental capture by fishing gear (bycatch) at sea.

The €3.45 million project, co-funded by the European Union’s LIFE programme and Malta’s Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and Animal Rights, will run for five years, until 2025.

The project was launched under the patronage of Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and Animal Rights Anton Refalo together with Parliamentary Secretary for European Funds Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi.

The project will quantify the scale and extent of fisheries bycatch, and mitigate these impacts through the development and implementation of a number of measures. The project will also work to decrease the rate of predation by rats through a thorough predator management and biosecurity plan in Malta and across partner countries. A key aspect will be the educational, and capacity-building aspect, using this project as a platform to raise awareness on the plight of these seabirds and tangible actions to drive change.

BirdLife Malta CEO Mark Sultana said that while BirdLife Malta has been studying seabirds for over 50 years, since the first EU-LIFE project led by the eNGO in 2006, it has been an incredible journey during which we have helped pelagic seabirds by learning more about them and about what threatens them.

“Birds have become crucial indicators of the well-being of our planet and of humankind. While BirdLife Malta, despite being an eNGO, is proud to be a net contributor to Malta’s economy, what fulfils us is the fact that we are clear net contributors to the common good of our country with the work we do in our nature reserves, with education in schools and in the field with conservation actions”.

Through this new project, BirdLife Malta and its BirdLife Partners the Hellenic Ornithological Society, HOS (BirdLife Greece); Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves, SPEA (BirdLife Portugal); Sociedad Española de Ornitología, SEO (BirdLife Spain); Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux, LPO (BirdLife France) together with Malta’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, and Greece’s Management Body of Cyclades Protected Areas, will share knowledge and investigate further the whereabouts of these elusive birds, their interactions with fisheries, and the perils these sea voyagers face during their lifecycles.

The Balearic Shearwater (Maltese name: Garnija Balearika) is classified as Critically Endangered with Extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, whilst the Yelkouan Shearwater (Maltese name: Garnija, Scientific name: Puffinus yelkouan) is classified as Vulnerable.

Both species are very susceptible to a changing environment and are affected by multiple marine and terrestrial threats which include pollution, the accidental capture of birds in fishing gear known as bycatch, climate change and severe weather. When it comes to breeding seabirds, invasive alien species and human disturbance are the main threats to these seabirds.

Both species spend a significant portion of their life on open seas, rarely visiting land except during the breeding season. Due to this they encounter a diversity of threats. Although both species breed exclusively in the Mediterranean, like many other seabirds they wander through different seas, in particular during the non-breeding season. Balearic Shearwaters visit the Atlantic coast of Portugal, France and southern England whilst large numbers of Yelkouan Shearwaters winter in the Black Sea.

Apart from hazards already identified and addressed through these projects such as light and noise pollution, human disturbance including from boat-based tourism, and egg/chick predation by invasive mammal species such as rats, the new project will also address emerging problems such as plastics, which might affect both these seabird species on a great scale in the next decades.