Restoration on Italian Islands, It’s About Saving Seabirds

Successful restoration of islands in Italy gives the Vulnerable Yelkouan Shearwater population a much-needed boost.

For over 20 years, the Nature Environment Management Operators (NEMO) has been dedicated to restoring Italy’s islands, with the main, but not the only, goal of protecting the breeding populations of the Yelkouan Shearwater (Puffinus yelkouan) and Scopoli’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea). The removal of invasive rats is one of the primary tools conservationists can use to protect these seabirds. To some, it may seem strange to carry out conservation actions by removing one animal for the benefit of another animal. However, in terms of nature conservation, the benefits obtained are extraordinary, with minimal risk for non-target species and incredible recovery for native wildlife.

Since 1999, 21 black rat eradications have been carried out on Italian islands. Although in some cases the rats have come back (the first islets carried out in Tuscany were too close to the mainland, and the island of Molara, where invasive rats were presumably reintroduced to sabotage the project). Currently, there are seven rat-free islands, making a total of 2035 ha. On another six islands (1919 ha), restoration is in underway or conservationists are waiting on final confirmation of success. Additionally, our partners at Life Puffinus Tavolara, recently launched the restoration of four of the Tremiti Islands in the Gargano National Park, totaling 308 ha.

Yelkouan Shearwater on Tavolara Island, Italy. Credit: Massimo Putzu

The success of these projects has given rise to a whole slough of Yelkouan Shearwaters chicks, giving the species a fighting chance in the race against extinction. Now, conservationists are hopeful that their recovery could result in a change to their global population status.

The preservation of the Yelkouan Shearwater primarily falls to Italy, which hosts about 2/3 of the world population. When invasive rats are present on the islands where Yelkouan Shearwaters nest, predation of eggs and chicks causes a drastic decline in their reproductive success. This oftentimes results in zero chicks successfully fledging and if any survive, it is almost always less than 10%. In Italy and throughout the Mediterranean invasive rats were present on practically all the islands occupied by Shearwaters, so it’s not surprising, that the Yelkouan Shearwater population appeared to be decreasing constantly, and is classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as “Vulnerable.”

Tavolara Island with a rainbow peaking through the clouds. Credit: P. Sposimo

Conservationists have gradually tackled larger and more difficult islands, starting from the first islets of the Tuscan Archipelago to get to Montecristo, the largest island, and to Tavolara, the most difficult one and with the world’s largest colony of Yelkouan Shearwaters. Today the situation is entirely different. The percentage of Yelkouan Shearwaters that nest on rat-free islands has gone from about 1% to just under 80%. On Tavolara Island, in the first two years without rats, an estimated 10,500 more birds successfully fledged. For a species whose population does not exceed 100,000, this marks an incredible recovery for the Shearwaters and could be crucial for their conservation status.

Featured photo: Yelkouan Shearwater taking flight from the ocean surface. Credit: Massimo Putzu

About Emily Heber

Emily is a recent graduate from UC Santa Barbara with a BS in Zoology. As a student, she discovered that she had a passion for the conservation of endangered species and their ecosystems. Her background in informal education has allowed her the opportunity to share her passion for animals with others, something she seeks to continue doing while working with the communication team. In her spare time, Emily enjoys exploring the amazing hiking trails found in Santa Cruz and tries to SCUBA dive whenever possible. Emily is excited to join the Island Conservation team and to help share the amazing work that is being done here.

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