Puffins, Killer Whales and Theresa May
Many of us have heard the claim that humans are currently causing the Earth’s sixth ‘mass extinction event’. In the back of our minds we probably know, for instance, that Africa’s megafauna are in sharp decline. We might even read the statistics, learning that 100,000 African elephants were killed each year in the 1980s, to supply the lucrative ivory trade, or that the entirety of the world’s population of northern white rhinos is female and therefore doomed. But it can be hard to really relate to these issues; few of us are used to seeing large African animals on a regular basis, let alone living alongside them. The ivory trade likewise is deplorable, but it’s manifestly an east Asian problem, one that the international community needs to deal with. The extirpation of wildlife is horrific, but it is surely a problem that is happening somewhere else, at the hands of somebody else, and there is very little that we (as individuals) can do about it?
My aim with this post is to try and expose how the collapse of our planet’s wildlife is in fact happening everywhere, at all scales, and so incredibly fast it is terrifying. I’m British and so I’m going to use British examples that, hopefully, will resonate most powerfully with the majority of my readers. But you can look at almost any country in the world and there too find evidence of the fact that our planet has lost well over half of its wildlife since the 1970s, at all scales; from the great insect die off to the collapse of what little megafauna remains.
Now I’m often the first to lament the lack of wildlife left in the British Isles. Even in Scotland, the putatively wild north of the U.K., the poster boy for our native wildlife is a squirrel. A squirrel. Don’t get me wrong, I love red squirrels, more than most people I’d wager, but nothing better highlights the poverty of our terrestrial ecosystems than the fact that this is one of our flagship native animals.
Thankfully it’s a different story when we look at Britain’s marine ecosystems, which house some truly world class nature. From enormous flocks of migratory geese, which winter in our firths and estuaries, to Scotland’s cold water coral reefs, kelp forests and seabird colonies, the U.K. hosts a diversity and abundance of marine life that is testament to the richness of our surrounding seas.
But now even our marine ecosystems are collapsing, as they fail to cope with the combination of climate change and anthropogenic impacts, such as plastic pollution and overfishing, on the environment. Don’t believe me? Well let’s examine this collapse through the lens of one our best loved species; the Atlantic puffin.
It is very hard not to feel an affinity for puffins. With their small size, comical appearance and complete lack of prowess in the air they come across as immensely cute. Their chicks are even called ‘pufflings’…as if they weren’t adorable enough already. They are superb ambassadors for our seabirds, seemingly unafraid of close approaches from humans, which means almost anyone with a smart-phone can get an instagram-worthy shot and experience, for a day, the serene pleasure of being a wildlife photographer.
But despite our love for puffins, we have been unable to halt their decline, which has been catastrophic. In Shetland, their U.K. stronghold, numbers of puffins have dropped from 33,000 in the year 2000 to just 570. To put it another way, Shetland has lost over 98% of these birds in less than two decades. And it’s not just puffins; kittiwakes, guillemots and many of our most common seabirds are trending down all over the British Isles with similar speed. So what’s going on?
The cause is likely a combination of factors, but top of the list is the decline of lesser sandeels (Ammodytes tobianus), a small fish which forms the basis of our marine food chain. The importance of this animal cannot be overstated; it forms the bulk of the diet of most of our predatory fish, our seabirds and hence many of our marine mammals too.
Quite why the sand eel population is collapsing is the subject of intense debate, though the consensus view is that climate change and overfishing are the main reasons. The U.K.’s surrounding seas, like much of the rest of the world, have warmed substantially in recent decades, and this has changed the abundance of certain species of plankton in our waters. As the zoo-plankton sandeels feed on move north or into deeper, cooler waters, new species from the south are moving in to replace them. The problem is that sandeels don’t eat these southern invaders, and so are forced to follow the species they co-evolved with, further north and into deeper waters, out of the reach of many of our marine predators like seabirds.
As well as this, overfishing is taking a toll on our sandeel too. EU nations like Denmark, as well as plenty of native vessels, harvest huge numbers of sandeel, to feed the ever-growing aquaculture industry. Think farmed salmon is sustainable? Think again.
What’s depressing is that we see this story being repeated the world over. Travel 9,000 miles to the south and trawlers in the Southern Ocean are rinsing the krill stocks there, directly competing with the penguins, seals and whales that live in those waters, to the extreme detriment of the latter. The krill gets turned into oil (what else?) and is then used in cooking as a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids.
If we want to arrest the destruction of these ecosystems, surely we need to be incentivising the use of alternatives? We already have the technology to grow plants with high levels of Omega-3…why not manufacture synthetic oils and fish foods, on land, and cut back on the disastrous overfishing of the key components of our oceans’ food chains? No doubt because doing so would impose a short-term economic cost.
But let’s move on from the gloomy waters of overfishing to something less cheery: the likely extinction of the U.K.’s only native pod of killer whales.
This resident group of orca are known as the ‘West Coast Community’ due to their frequent sightings all along the west coast of Scotland, as they patrol their Hebridean home. Other groups of orca also visit the U.K., most frequently around northern Scotland and the Northern Isles, where they tend to be summer visitors from Iceland. But our native killer whales are different to these peripatetic pods in several remarkable ways. They are generally bigger, on average a metre longer, have differently shaped white patches on their face and hunt marine mammals almost exclusively. The Icelandic groups, by contrast, are fish specialists, feeding on herring and mackerel. Perhaps most interestingly, the Scottish natives have a language, or dialect, that is more similar to killer whales living in and around Antarctica than to any of the other orca in the North Atlantic. This is corroborated by genetic evidence that also shows the ‘West Coast Community’ to be more closely related to Southern Ocean ecotypes than their northern cousins. To me, this is amazing. The Hebrides are harbouring a lineage of orca that must have diverged from their neighbours hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.
The individuals in this Hebridean pod are similarly remarkable. One male called ‘Comet’ has been identified as the same individual who enthralled Ulster when he swam up the river Foyle in 1977. Already full grown then, this orca must be at least 50, which is getting on for double the average lifespan of a male killer whale.
It’s just as well that he is living to a ripe old age, because the saddest thing about the ‘West Coast Community’ is that they are doomed. In the 26 years since researchers first started studying these orca, the pod has failed to produce a single living calf. Their numbers are now down to just eight individuals and, with no new whales to replace them, when they eventually all die the lineage will be extinguished.
In 2016, one of the pod’s females, ‘Lulu’, was found dead, washed up on the Isle of Tiree. She seems to have died from becoming tangled in fishing gear, as so many marine mammals do, but perhaps more tragic was the level of toxic chemicals in her tissue, revealed by a post-mortem. Her body contained among the highest levels of polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs ever recorded. These chemicals were banned in the 1970s but still persist in our environment, where they have been consumed by animals up and down the food chain. Killer whales, as apex predators, accumulate the highest concentrations of these industrial pollutants in their bodies. With such a high level of toxicity, it is no wonder they are unable to reproduce. We have poisoned our only resident orca, and now we must watch them die, one by one.
My final anecdote takes us out of the water and back onto dry land. I didn’t actually read about the decline of this bird, I just noticed it was missing from the skies this year. The creature in question is the humble swift.
Swifts are a summer visitor to the U.K., migrating from central and southern Africa to feast on the insects that flourish here in summer. They are the supreme aviators of the bird world, sometimes flying continuously for more than a year before they feel the need to land. They eat, drink, mate and even sleep on the wing, restlessly pursuing insects with an agility that inspired their name.
Since 1995, the U.K. has lost over half of its swift population, a trend echoed throughout continental Europe as well. Again, the causes of this decline are indistinct and multifarious but our old friends climate change and anthropogenic impacts are certainly involved. The former, combined with our agriculture’s war on insects, is believed to be behind the collapse of the swift’s food source. The latter is more subtle. It seems that changes in the way we build our houses, now devoid of nooks or crannies in which swifts might nest, are robbing these birds of their traditional homes. Their continued decline seems inevitable and they join a growing list of once-common animals that are now becoming scarce.
(In typical British fashion, fans of the swift have rallied round and starting tomorrow, Saturday 16th June, the country will enact a ‘National Swift Week’. While I often deride such species-orientated initiatives as myopic, given the clear need for ecosystem-scale protection, this idea does seem a good one. At the very least it will raise awareness of the swifts’ population crash, and it may well provide insight into the main causes of that crash and how we can address them. Do visit this webpage if you want to find out more about how you be involved.)
My point with all of these examples is not simply to make you miserable or despondent. It is to examine what we can do, and how we can change our society’s course to prevent the world becoming devoid of almost all wildlife.
First, however, we must take stock of the incredible speed of these declines and the undeniable role that climate change is playing in all this. Global warming is not a phenomenon we can ignore. It is happening at such a frightening pace that already we are seeing its devastating impacts across the world. This is not a problem we can distance ourselves from, temporally or spatially. Even if we took the most drastic action right now to cut global carbon emissions to zero, we have so much planetary warming locked in that we will undoubtedly continue to lose enormous quantities of our wildlife. Unfortunately, this is the best case scenario we have and the one we should be fighting for with tooth and claw.
Second, we must acknowledge how problematic our economic activities’ lack of sensitivity to the natural world is. We need to learn from our past mistakes and correct them, where possible. Before chemicals are manufactured on an industrial scale we need to think through the ramifications of them being released into the environment. Before we start fishing the hell out of a particular species we need to consider what other animals rely on that organism, and what role it performs for the ecosystem as a whole. Before we change our building practises we need to research what impacts it might have on the animals we co-exist with. In short, we need to think, long and hard, before we act in economic self-interest, and this thinking needs to be mandatory and proven.
It can be hard to feel motivated enough on this issue to act, and even more difficult to know how. Most of us live urban lives that are so completely removed from the natural world we have no idea that this is occurring, less still how it directly affects us. But unless you believe that we don’t have a collective responsibility to future generations and to the other organisms that inhabit this planet, its clear that it does affect us; all of us.
The best way to help is to take an interest in these issues and to use any and all political will you have to force our leaders to engage with the scale of these problems. Theresa May and her current government have shown themselves utterly ill equipped to tackle the 21st century’s ecological crises. My next post will focus on what they could be doing, why their continued environmental apathy is so deplorable and why we need to impress upon our politicians the illogicality of continuing to read from the same old socio-economic script.