One step forward, at least one step back. That appears to be the message from two new reports on Europe’s endangered fish and bird species released this week by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Each report praises successes for a handful of species but presents a grimmer picture overall.
The first report is itself a milestone: the first full assessment of all of Europe’s 1,220 marine fish species (pdf). The study found that 7.5 percent of those species were threatened with extinction. Worst hit, as we’ve seen before, were sharks, rays and chimaeras. A full 40.4 percent of those European species (known collectively as chondrichthians) face the threat of extinction and nearly that many have declining populations.
Although overfishing was blamed for most of these species’ declines, improved fisheries management practices have helped to boost the populations of at least a handful of species. Both Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) and Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) were called out as species whose stocks have increased, at least within European waters. They remain more threatened elsewhere.
Overfishing, meanwhile, was also identified in the second report as the main cause for the decline of European birds—many of which depend on fish for their own food. The report (pdf) looked at all 533 species that spend at least part of their time in Europe and found that 13 percent are threatened. Four species have been declared regionally extinct in Europe. Others, such as the sociable lapwing (Vanellus gregarius), aren’t far behind. Another 28 species have been assessed as endangered or critically endangered on the continent. Most of these are also at risk through the remainder of their ranges.
The report brings worrying news for two iconic species, the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) and the northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis). Both wide-ranging species suffer from lack of prey and the effects of climate change. As a result, they have each now been listed as endangered.
As for successes, here’s a pretty good one: The Azores bullfinch (Pyrrhula murina) nearly went extinct in the 1970s after its sole habitat, São Miguel Island, was overrun by invasive plants. Today the population is up to 400 pairs and the species, which was listed as critically endangered, is now considered just endangered.
Perhaps the most important news out of the two reports is how much we still have to learn. More than a fifth of European fish species could not be assessed for their extinction risk because we don’t know enough about them. In addition, the population trends of more than 68 percent of European marine fish also remains unknown.
Here’s what we do know, though: These two reports collectively offer important information for managing many of these species and hopefully improving efforts to conserve them. The success stories this week may still be few and far between but the European Union has strong biodiversity protection targets set in place and information like this can only help, even if it at first presents us with a bleak portrait of so many species.
Photo: Atlantic puffin by Fred Yost/USFWS