No way home: collapse in northern gannet survival rates point to critical marine ecosystem perturbation

Abstract

Seabirds are one of the most threatened of all bird groups, with a marked community-wide decline across the last decades. Yet, some seabird species are more resilient than others, and it is essential to study under which conditions even these highly resilient organisms are affected by global changes. Here, we report such a case in northern gannets (Morus bassanus). Using global location sensors (GLS), demographic and stable isotope analyses, we performed a long-term study of the migration biology and inter-annual survival of gannets breeding on Rouzic Island in Brittany, France. Across 2006–2015, our analyses showed that the birds spent the inter-breeding period off Western Europe, in the Mediterranean or off West Africa. There were no inter-annual trends in the use of these different areas, but isotopic analyses suggested food competition between gannets and industrial-scale fisheries. Crucially, we found a precipitous decline in the return rates of birds equipped with GLS, from 100% in 2006–2007 to less than 30% after 2015. This decline was consistent with a marked decrease in inter-annual survival probabilities for ringed adult gannets, from > 90% in 2014–2015 to < 60% in 2018–2019, and with a population decline of the Rouzic gannet breeding colony in recent years. Strong ecological signals provided by northern gannets point to critical marine ecosystem perturbation in the Eastern Atlantic, and the decline of this resilient and emblematic species should lead to the urgently needed transformation of marine policies.

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Data availability

Data used in this study are available from the authors upon request.

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Acknowledgements

Field studies greatly benefited from the help of all staff at the Station Ornithologique de l’Ile Grande, under the leadership of François Siorat, Mélanie Le Nuz and Pascal Provost. We are also grateful for the participation of Tangi le Bot, Armel Deniau, Julie Grousseau, Vincent Bretille, Régis Perdriat, Samuel Perret, Françoise Amélineau, Alice Bernard, Thierry Boulinier and Nory El Ksabi. We thank Steve Votier for supporting GLS deployment in 2008–2010, and G. Guillou & B. Lebreton from the plateforme ‘Isotopic Spectrometry’ (La Rochelle University-LIENSs) for their assistance with isotopic analyses.

Funding

This study was funded by CNRS, the MAVA Foundation through the ALCYON Project administered by Justine Dossa, and through the INTERREG program FAME administered by LPO.

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DG, AL and PP designed the study. DG, AL, PP, CP and JF participated in the field studies. CP, AL, AB, DG and JF analyzed the data. DG produced the first draft of the paper, to which all other authors contributed.

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Correspondence to David Grémillet.

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Birds were handled under permits of the Direction des Services Vétérinaires (N° 34-369) and of the Comité d’Ethique Régional Languedoc-Roussillon (N°1110).

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Grémillet, D., Péron, C., Lescroël, A. et al. No way home: collapse in northern gannet survival rates point to critical marine ecosystem perturbation. Mar Biol 167, 189 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00227-020-03801-y

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