New Study Sheds Light on Endangered Seabirds and the Need for International Protection

Laysan and black-footed albatrosses at Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals, Northwest Hawaiian Islands. Photo credit: SJSU Professor Scott Shaffer

SJSU Biological Sciences Professor Scott Shaffer and an international team of researchers published a paper in the scientific journal Science Advances on endangered seabirds’ movements and the need to protect these highly threatened seabirds using a global approach.

The researchers tracked the movements of 5,775 individual birds belonging to 39 species from across the globe. The birds were equipped with bio-loggers, or miniature electronic data recorders, at 87 remote breeding sites in 17 countries.

In the Pacific Ocean alone, researchers studied albatrosses at colonies on the Japanese island of Torishima in the North Pacific, to subantarctic islands of New Zealand and Australia in the South Pacific, which hosts some of the highest diversity of albatrosses and petrels globally.

“This was a truly international effort for a global conservation need,” said Professor Shaffer. “Hopefully, the results of this research will bring about meaningful change to protect these amazing ocean travelers.”

The researchers found that all albatrosses and petrels studied spend at least 39% of their time on the high seas, which are international waters where no single country has jurisdiction. Yet, these high seas regions cover half of the world’s oceans and a third of the earth’s surface. They discovered all species regularly cross into other countries’ territorial waters, meaning that no single nation can adequately ensure their conservation.

“Seabirds like albatrosses are the ultimate globetrotters,” said Martin Beal, lead author of the study at the Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre at Instituto Universitário in Lisbon, Portugal (ISPA). “But this incredible lifestyle makes them vulnerable to threats in places where legal protection is inadequate.”

Albatrosses and large petrels are among the world’s most threatened animals, with over half of the species at risk of extinction. While at sea, they face many threats, including injury or death from entanglement with fishing gear, the impact from pollution, and loss of their natural prey due to overfishing and climate change.

“This means that a Black-footed Albatross breeding in the protected Northwest Hawaiian Islands can fall victim to a fishing operation from any number of flag nations on the high seas,” said Professor Shaffer. “Protective measures to avoid bird entanglements are not standardized, and it’s a real challenge to verify compliance at any given time.”

For example, the endangered Amsterdam Albatross spends 47% of its time in the international waters of the Indian Ocean. Although it benefits from strong protection at its only breeding colony on Amsterdam Island (one of the French Southern Territories), its conservation at sea is much more challenging.

When roaming the seas in search of their prey—squid, the fewer than 100 remaining adult Amsterdam Albatrosses use a vast area stretching from South Africa to Australia, requiring international coordination to minimize the risk of being killed in fishing gear.

In a global-scale collaboration, the team of researchers revealed the extent to which seabirds connect countries, as well as to the high seas. The study comes as the United Nations discusses a global treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in international waters.

“Our study unequivocally shows that albatrosses and large petrels need reliable protection that extends beyond the borders of any single country,” said Beal. “This treaty represents a massive opportunity for countries to commit to protecting species wherever they may roam.”

Legal measures up for discussion under the treaty include instituting environmental impact assessments on industrial activities in the high seas.  Beal added, “Animals have no concept of human borders. What we have shown here with seabirds is certainly true for many other marine animals, like sea turtles, seals, whales, and fish. To ensure their survival, we must work together to protect and conserve the global ocean.”

The study was made possible thanks to the cooperation of dozens of researchers across 16 countries, who agreed to share their data through the Seabird Tracking Database, a repository managed by BirdLife International to facilitate international collaborations between researchers working on the conservation of seabirds.

SJSU Students Awarded National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships

Nebat Ali

Nebat Ali, ’19 Biological Sciences, has received an NSF graduate research fellowship.

Nebat Ali, ’19 Biological Sciences, felt huge excitement and validation when she learned in March she had received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP), one of two SJSU students honored this year.

“It was so affirming to me as a young scientist because it means students like myself really do belong in academic research labs,” she said.

Ali, who graduated from San Jose State last year, and senior Jocelyn Valenzuela, who will graduate with a degree in chemical engineering, were among the 2,076 fellowship winners across the nation who will be pursuing academic science research at the highest levels.

Jocelyn Valenzuela

Jocelyn Valenzuela, ’20 Chemical Engineering, has received an NSF graduate research fellowship.

“The NSF fellowship will give me more options for selecting projects and mentors that will help me pursue my research passions,” said Valenzuela. “I couldn’t have done this by myself without the help from my professors and other students here.”

The NSF GRFP is the country’s oldest fellowship program that directly supports graduate students in STEM fields. Winners of the fellowship receive a stipend and tuition support amounting to $46,000 per year for three years.

“This is as good as it gets,” said Pamela Stacks, SJSU Associate Vice President for Research. “The NSF honors academic excellence, and we’re enormously proud of our talented students who gain genuine respect, confidence and independence with this fellowship.”

NSF GRFP has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers. The reputation of the GRFP follows recipients and often helps them become lifelong leaders who contribute significantly to both scientific innovation and teaching.

Stacks said the NSF program also validates the role of research and strong academic preparation on campus. “Even though San Jose State and other schools in the CSU system are often seen as ‘teaching universities,’ our commitment to research is incredibly strong,” she said. “We’re preparing outstanding young scientific researchers who definitely can hold their own among students from other top universities.”

Over the past six years, 18 SJSU students have received NSF GRFP fellowships, and another 11 have received honorable mentions. Three other San Jose State students received honorable mentions this year: Austin Betancourt and Anjum Gujral in the field of ecology and evolution, and Michelia Dam in chemistry.

“This is a consistent record of accomplishment that speaks well of our efforts to encourage our students to pursue scientific research,” said Cleber Ouverney, professor of biological sciences who also heads the San Jose State’s Maximizing Access to Research Careers program (MARC).

MARC is sponsored by the National Institutes of Health to provide support for undergraduate students who are underrepresented in biomedical sciences to engage in research and improve their preparation for high-caliber graduate training at the PhD level.

“We have several programs on campus that offer a practical framework for students interested in scientific research but who often face a range of challenges that can frustrate their ambition,” said Ouverney. “However, through a combination of some financial assistance, close support from our faculty, and a peer network that provides encouragement, we’ve been able to successfully prepare our students for the rigors of graduate school.”

As a chemical engineering major, Valenzuela’s research work at SJSU concentrated on nanoscale materials and their potential for medical applications such as early cancer detection. She’s worked in the labs with professors Abraham Wolcott in physical chemistry and Katy Kao in chemical engineering. Valenzuela will be starting her PhD program in chemical engineering at Stanford this fall.

“I’m looking forward to using the knowledge and skills I learned at San Jose State and the genuine collaboration I’ve found in both academic and industry labs to pursue basic research that can result in real world benefits,” she said.

While at SJSU, Ali worked with Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Miri VanHoven’s lab in the field of neurological science looking into molecular and genetic mechanisms of neural development and behavior. Now a first-year PhD student at University of California, San Francisco, she’s focusing on microbiology and the impact of microbes on higher organisms.

“I’m truly grateful for all the support I received at San Jose State that helped me become competitive for the NSF award,” said Ali. “The MARC program especially was valuable to me because of the mentorship from my professors and the community of students who help each other prepare applications and proposals.

Ali and Valenzuela are both eager to get back to their respective lab benches as soon as the coronavirus crisis has passed.

David Vossbrink