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BirdLife International - identifying marine IBAs.

BirdLife International has a well-established and highly successful programme of defining Important Bird Areas (IBAs). The aim of the IBA programme is to "identify and protect a network of sites at a biogeographic scale, critical for the long-term viability of naturally occurring bird populations, across the range of those bird species for which a site-based approach is appropriate. The network is considered the minimum essential to ensure the survival of these species". The IBA programme has only recently been extended into the marine environment, and thus the protection and conservation value that the IBA programme has brought to terrestrial birds, habitats and ecosystems has not yet been translated into similar benefits for seabirds, marine habitats or coastal or pelagic ecosystems.

The seabird division of BirdLife South Africa has started a marine IBA programme. We have identified a sites in the region that are important breeding places for many of the regions seabirds. However, these are all terrestrial, and there is a need to extend our recognition of important areas for seabirds into the marine environment as well. To this end BirdLife International is rolling out a programme of work to identify marine IBAs (MIBAs).

The threats that seabirds face are somewhat analogous to those faced by migratory waders and land birds, although migration routes, times and stopovers en route tend to be very specific and vary very little within a species, and there is much overlap between species. This makes it easier to identify key sites for protection – something that our terrestrial Important Bird Areas programme has done to great effect. But seabirds are different, with threats that are unique amongst birds, because those that occur at sea (away from breeding sites) receive very little observer effort to record problems, and often no legislation to deal with them. Until 10 years ago when remote tracking technology became available, our understanding of seabird movements away from breeding colonies was extremely limited.

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