Seabirds are among the most threatened groups of birds because they face challenges both at their breeding sites and at sea. Almost one-third of all seabirds are on the global Red List, and they comprise nearly half of all threatened birds in South Africa. The Fitz’s Seabird Research Programme assesses the severity of threats faced by seabirds, and attempts to provide practical management solutions to reduce these threats. Southern Ocean species are mainly threatened at sea by fishing mortality and climate change, and by invasive species on land. Monitoring seabirds provides a window into the health of the Southern Ocean.

Most fieldwork takes place through the South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP) at the Prince Edward Islands, Tristan da Cunha, Gough Islands and Antarctica. Fitztitute seabird research on Marion Island, the larger of the two Prince Edward Islands, commenced in the 1970s. John Cooper initiated a series of seabird study colonies in the early 1980s, but servicing these long-term studies through a succession of three-year research projects has become increasingly challenging. Maëlle Connan (NMU) and Peter Ryan were awarded a research grant through the South African National Antarctic Programme for 2021-2023. The project focuses on avian scavengers at Marion Island to establish robust baselines prior to the planned mouse eradication. During 2023, monitoring at Marion and Antarctica was undertaken by collaborating with CoE partner Azwianewi Makhado from the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE). Monitoring at Gough Island has been taken over by the RSPB.

Activities in 2023

  • 2023 was the final year of data collection for the SANAP project on avian scavengers at Marion Island led by Maëlle Connan and Peter Ryan. A highlight was the high Brown Skua Catharacta antarctica breeding population count in 2023/24, indicating the recovery of the island’s skua population.
  • The long-awaited summer survey of Prince Edward Island finally took place in November 2023. Maëlle Connan, Azwianewi Makhado, Makhudu Masotla and Stefan and Janine Schoombie conducted bird surveys across the island.
  • After a two-year leave of absence on Gough Island, PhD student Kim Stevens made steady progress towards her PhD on Grey-headed Albatrosses Thalassarche chrysostoma. She submitted her first paper, which reports the steady growth of the Marion Island population.
  • Danielle Keys (PhD student at NMU) continued her research on the interaction between foraging behaviour and demographic responses in Wandering Albatrosses Diomedea exulans.
  • Tegan Walker completed her MSc at NMU on the diet of Brown Skuas at Marion Island and the link between diet and breeding parameters.
  • Theresa Burg’s MSc student, Dilini Abeyrama, explored the phylogeography of Phoebetria albatrosses using a suite of genetic markers.
  • Peter Ryan led visits to two Emperor Penguin Aptenodytes forsteri colonies in central Dronning Maud Land, including the first visit to the Astrid colony, which was only known from satellite imagery. He also submitted a paper on the seabirds of the Schirmacher Oasis, indicating how food subsidies from research bases allowed the breeding population of South Polar Skuas Catharacta maccormicki to increase historically to the point that they likely caused the local extinction of Snow Petrels Pagodroma nivea.


  • Susie Cunningham and Peter Ryan obtained funding from SANAP for a three-year project on the impact of climate change on seabirds breeding at Marion Island, which will commence in 2024.
  • Lyle de Menezes was awarded his MSc from NMU on the trophic ecology of, and plastic loads in, petrels breeding at Marion Island.
  • Six papers on Southern Ocean seabirds and their conservation were published in 2023.
  • Peter Ryan inferred long-term changes in petrel populations on Inaccessible Island, Tristan da Cunha, from Brown Skua diet in a paper published in a special issue of Ostrich in memory of Richard Dean.
  • Stefan Schoombie reported a new method to infer seabird body angle from magnetometer data, in Royal Society Open Science and explored the effects of wind on fine-scale dynamic soaring behaviour of Wandering Albatrosses in Marine Ecology Progress Series.
  • Mia Momberg (former PhD student at U Pretoria) explored the factors determining nest-site selection by Wandering Albatrosses on Marion Island, with special reference to wind fields, in a paper in Ibis.
  • Janine Schoombie led on a paper reporting wind-induced mortality of Grey‐headed Albatrosses breeding on Marion Island, published in Marine Ecology Progress Series.
  • Stefan Schoombie and Peter Ryan contributed to a paper led by Elham Nourani in Current Biology that explored the importance of seabird morphology on their ability to cope with gale-force winds.
  • Newi Makhado has served on the Southern Ocean Observing System (SOOS) steering committee in the Southern Indian Ocean sector (SOIS) Regional Working Group from 2021 until the present. He is now the Chair of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources General Capacity Building fund.
  • Newi led and co-chaired a workshop on the pelagic eco-regionalisation in the subantarctic Indian oceans held in France in May 2023 and presented in both the SANAP Symposium and the Working Group on Ecosystem Monitoring and Management (WG-EMM) in South Africa and India .

Key co-supporters
Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP); ACE Foundation; CNRS; DSI-NRF CoE grant; European Union; RSPB; South African National Antarctic Programme; WWF Australia; DFFE.

Research team 2023
Emer. Prof. Peter Ryan (FIAO, UCT)
Dr Maëlle Connan (NMU)
Dr Azwianewi Makhado (Oceans & Coasts, DFFE)
Prof. Pierre Pistorius (NMU)
Prof. Res Altwegg (SEEC, UCT)
Dr Theresa Burg (U. Lethbridge, Canada)
Dr Sarah Converse (Oregon)
Dr Steffen Oppel (RSPB)
Dr Richard Phillips (British Antarctic Survey)
Janine Schoombie (U. Pretoria)
Dr Stefan Schoombie (SEEC, UCT)
Dr Henri Wiemerskirch (CNRS, Chizé)
Prof. Rory Wilson (Swansea U.)

Students: Danielle Keys (PhD, NMU); Kim Stevens (PhD, UCT); Lyle de Menezes (MSc, NMU); Tegan Walker (MSc, NMU).

Field assistants: Andile Mdluli, Tebogo Peta, Lucy Smyth (Marion 2022/23); Chris Jones, Michelle Risi (Marion 2023/24).