One man’s personal bid to save and promote Abrolhos seabirds

One man’s personal bid to save and promote Abrolhos seabirds

January 16, 2020 0 By Luis Garrison


This is one of the most significant seabird breeding sites in the Indian Ocean. In fact it’s the top breeding site in the eastern Indian Ocean which is our western coast. Marine ecologist Chris Surman has spent the past 29 years studying Abrolhos seabirds –
most of it self-funded. His work focuses on Pelsaert Island – a 12-kilometre-long low-lying isle home to hundreds of thousands of seabirds. We have 14 species nesting there on one island, spread over an area, but within that area we have some threatened species, for example the lesser noddy. Lesser noddies only nest on three islands – all of those islands are in the Houtman Abrolhos and the largest populations of those are at
Pelsaert Island where we have our database. If we want to protect lesser noddies and that population we need to do the research we’re doing at the Houtman Abrolhos so we can better understand how that creature ticks. But on top of that we also have things like the brown noddy. 80 per cent of brown noddies that nest in Australia nest on Pelsaert Island. Within the Houtman Abrolhos group we have the largest population of wedge-tailed shearwaters breeding in the Indian Ocean. I think it’s about one million birds in that population so that’s significant. We have about 50 per cent of sooty terns that nest in Australia nest on Pelsaert Island. On Pelsaert Island we’ve got close to 300,000 or 400,000 pairs of birds nesting. We’ve got significant populations from an Australian and a global sense nesting just down the road from us here. With increasing tourism numbers expected with the Abrolhos’s recent declaration as national park, Dr Surman is keen to ensure the Abrolhos is as prized for seabirds as it is for underwater wonders. He’s just released a book to highlight the islands’ environmental importance, and raise money to further his seabird studies. There’s been a lot of stuff written about shipwrecks, the Batavia, the Zeewijk, and a lot about the rock lobster fishing industry because it’s the main industry out here but there’s never been a voice for the natural environment. It’s always played second fiddle in pretty much every decision that’s ever been made so it was time. It was time for a book now that we’ve got a national park, that will afford some more protection hopefully, but we need to know what’s out here. The public need to realise this is a supremely unique group of islands that’s sitting off our doorstep and you can come out here and have a look at some fantastic things but we need to look after it. We have a responsibility. We’re the caretakers. In particular Dr Surman is calling for seabird-significant sites like Pelsaert Island to be spared from overnight camping. Too much human contact could force birds to abandon their nests, while visitors could also unwittingly trample the burrows, eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds. There has been talk about camping on some of the islands and setting out overnight stay areas and I think that can work in the right place but I don’t think the right place is adjacent to internationally-significant seabird colonies