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Joan Edwards

Joan Edwards is the Head of Living Seas at The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts.

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Dead bird disaster?

Posted: Wednesday 17th April 2013 by Joan

Dead guillemot cpt Teresa NaylorDead guillemot cpt Teresa Naylor

Once again it takes the spectacle of dead and dying wildlife to highlight the shortcomings in our approach to managing the marine environment.

Over the past week, hundreds of seabirds, mostly guillemots, but with the occasional razorbill and puffin, have been washed up on the shores of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. Coated in a sticky substance, at first birds were found alive and taken for treatment and re-release by the RSPCA. 

In recent days however, the vast majority of birds are being found dead; the only task remaining being to dispose of them safely.  It is thought that the birds could be covered the same material that killed thousands of seabirds earlier in the year.

Analysis from this earlier tragedy identified that the sticky mess was polyisobutene, an oil additive known as PIB.  It could even be from the same vessel, affecting the coast once more due to a change in wind direction, as the substance does not disperse in water easily.  Samples are being analysed to see if these suspicions can be confirmed. 

But it would be so much better if the substance – whatever it turns out to be – hadn’t been released into the environment in the first place.  We can’t stop potentially damaging substances begin moved around the world by ship; our modern way of life depends upon it. 

What we need to do is to put firm controls in place that minimise the chance of any release into the marine environment and – in the case of deliberate release – allow culprits to be tracked and punished.  In these days of financial constraints it will be argued that these controls will be too expensive, and will put an unnecessary burden on business. 

But the cost of doing nothing may well be greater. 

Dead and dying seabirds are just the most visible victims of our mismanagement.  Impacts on other parts of marine life support systems may be just as widespread, and more serious.  Not to mention the impacts on tourism of dead seabirds on the beach – particularly pressing in south-west counties which rely so heavily on summer visitors. 

Tragic though the sight of dead birds on the beach may be, if it finally brings home the message that we need to make big changes to the way we manage our seas and protect its most vulnerable inhabitants, their deaths will not have been entirely in vain.

You can read recent media releases on this issue, below:

You can also sign an epetition which is calling for the dumping of polyisobutene waste at sea to be banned...

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