Potential climate-driven changes to seabird demography: implications for assessments of marine renewable energy development

Inter-Research Science Centre
1. Society has set ambitious green energy targets to which Offshore Renewable Developments (ORDs) will make a significant contribution. Governments are legally required to sustainably deliver ORDs, however they may have detrimental impacts on protected wildlife already experiencing marked declines due to climate change. Successful delivery of marine renewable targets is constrained by uncertainties in whether ORDs will compound climate-driven effects that protected populations are already experiencing. Population Viability Analysis (PVA) is the standard method for forecasting wildlife population change, underpinning ORD assessments. However, currently PVAs do not account for effects of climate change on populations.

2. We used generalised linear mixed models to quantify climate effects on seabird productivity in eight species breeding at 119 colonies along the UK's Eastern seaboard. We used these relationships to explore the potential for seabirds to mitigate climate-driven changes in productivity by accessing wider resources through increased foraging ranges around colonies.

3. We demonstrate strong links between productivity and climate in five species. In four species, future climate projections indicated large declines in productivity relative to current rates (Atlantic puffin, black-legged kittiwake, common guillemot and great black-backed gull). Only one species, northern gannet, was predicted to increase productivity under future climate. In all five species, modelling indicated there would be very limited opportunity for species to increase productivity by expanding foraging ranges to access more suitable future climatic conditions.

4. Policy implications: our results demonstrate that climate change will have significant ramifications for future productivity of seabirds breeding in the North Sea, an area undergoing extensive and rapid offshore renewable energy development. We recommend including climate-driven changes to seabird productivity within ORD assessments, particularly PVA, to avoid mis-identifying the strength of ORD impacts on vital rates and their consequences for populations already undergoing climate-driven change. Our recommendations include: development of predictive climate-driven habitat use models to estimate ORD-wildlife interactions; refined estimates for climate-driven changes in vital rates and their inclusion within PVAs; delivery of a new ORD assessment framework that includes dynamic predictions of climate-driven habitat use and demography of protected wildlife populations; consideration of climate-driven changes in the implementation of compensatory measures.

Refereed journal