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Solving the challenge of studying seabirds at sea

Dr Eric Woehler, BirdLife Tasmania

Australia’s vast marine estate supports a broad diversity of wildlife – both above and below the waves, from surface waters to abyssal depths – with habitats ranging from cold Antarctic waters to the warm waters of the tropics. Studying life in and above our oceans offers significant challenges, not the least of which are the vast distances involved and the significant costs associated with studies in remote marine areas.

Project name

Spatial and temporal variability in the distribution and abundance of seabirds

Principal Investigator

Dr Eric Woehler


BirdLife Australia

Project duration

August 2016 - present


Seabirds are not easy to study. They are distributed patchily over the oceans, both in space and in time. Most seabird species nest on islands, often in remote regions of the world that are difficult to access and undertake research.

However, relative to other marine animals, seabirds at sea are relatively easy to observe and to identify the species seen.

Studies of seabirds at sea are important, not just to gather information about the distribution and health of seabird populations themselves but also because seabirds have attributes that make them important as an indicator species. In particular, they are highly mobile animals, thereby interacting with ecosystems on a variety of spatial and temporal scales. Seabirds also obtain all their food from the sea so provide insights into the health of marine systems and potentially can provide early warnings about changes in the ocean.

Project aims

Led by Dr Eric Woehler, a research scientist with the Australasian Seabird Group (a special interest group of BirdLife Australia), the project collects crucial data on the distribution and abundances of seabirds and marine mammals within Australia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and beyond. The project examines the relationships between physical and biological oceanographic features and their relationship with seabird feeding areas.

The data also allows the study to identify species assemblages, or associations, in the species of seabirds observed that persist over time.

Observational projects such as this have little to no impact on other research projects or vessel sea-time on RV Investigator, requiring only access to the vessel observation deck and using unused berths in the voyage schedule. Thus they offer a significant value-add and increase the national benefit delivered by RV Investigator.

Project results
Bridled Tern in flight. Image: © Eric J Woehler, BirdLife Tasmania.

This project commenced in August 2016 and has to date:

  • recorded over 112,000 individual seabird observations
  • identified more than 120 seabird species
  • collected data from a full circumnavigation of the Australian continent.

These data have been collected alongside oceanographic data to improve our understanding of seabirds and the way in which they relate to our changing ocean environments.

The project has collected new data for seabirds from around the entire Australian continent, for which there are frequently very few (and in many cases, nil) previous data. Observational data has also been collected for a wide variety of marine mammals and other marine animals such as marine turtles.

The collection of data on the distribution and abundances of seabirds addresses a fundamental gap in our knowledge of the at-sea distributions of most marine taxa in Australia’s EEZ. These data are facilitating a better understanding of seabird dynamics in the marine environment for marine managers and others responsible for the conservation of our remarkable and valuable marine environments.

Built into this project is a strong emphasis on involving higher-degree students and early career scientists in all aspects of the collection, analyses and publication of the data. This serves to further student training and maximise their opportunities for future research careers, helping to engage the next generation of researchers and develop our growing Blue Economy.

Project voyages

The project commenced in August 2016 and has been included on the following voyages:

2019: IN2019_T03IN2019_T02IN2019_V04, IN2019_V07

2018: IN2018_V06IN2018_C01IN2018_V04IN2018_T02

2017: IN2017_T02IN2017_T01, IN2017_V02

2016: IN2016_V06IN2016_T02

 Voyage summaries, publications and project outcomes are available on each voyage summary page.

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