Please note: This discussion topic is one of a set about species that are endemic or nearly endemic to the European Union (EU), and whose status in the EU therefore effectively determines their global status. To ensure consistency between the 2020 global and EU Red List assessments of these species, this set of topics is being fast-tracked through BirdLife’s Globally Threatened Bird Forums to inform decisions on the EU (and global) status of relevant species, which must be finalised and communicated to the European Commission by mid-April 2020. Topics on other species will be posted on the Forums shortly, for discussion later in the spring, as per usual. The results of the 2020 global Red List update for birds will be published by IUCN and BirdLife in early December.
Velvet Scoter Melanitta fusca breeds in Fennoscandia and Russia, east to the River Yenisey and south to Kazakhstan, with isolated populations in the Caucasus; it winters in the Baltic Sea and coastal NW Europe, with some in the Black and Caspian Seas (Carboneras et al. 2020). It is currently listed as Vulnerable under Criteria A2+3+4 (past, future and present declines), because when last assessed its population was thought to be declining at a rate exceeding 30% over three generations (22.5 years, based on a generation length estimated by BirdLife at that time to be 7.5 years).
Globally, it has an extremely large extent of occurrence in both the breeding season (>14 million km2) and in winter (>9,000,000 km2), and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criteria (B and D2). Its population size is also very large (c. 330,000–550,000 individuals; Wetland International 2020), and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criteria (C and D1). Therefore, the only potentially relevant criterion is A, which relates to reductions in population size. When last assessed, the population was thought to be declining by >30% over three generations, based on trend data compiled for the 2015 European Red List (BirdLife International 2015). Many of those data related to the observed reduction in numbers wintering in the Baltic Sea between 1992–3 and 2007–9 (Skov et al. 2011). That assessment was informed by a discussion on this Forum in 2015, when the species’s status was reclassified from Endangered to Vulnerable because its rate of population decline had slowed.
In late 2019, all 28 EU Member States were obliged to complete their second 6-yearly report to the European Commission (EC) under Article 12 of the EU Birds Directive, including their latest information on the sizes and trends of the populations and ranges of all naturally occurring wild bird species. Under an EC contract to evaluate the EU population status of each species, BirdLife has now analysed these new data, which indicate that this species’s wintering population is no longer declining. Trends were assessed over 18.6 years, based on an improved estimate of the species’s generation length (6.2 years; Bird et al. 2020), which supersedes the value used previously.
From a global Red List perspective, the trend of the European wintering population is paramount, since >99% of the global population winters in Europe, and >90% in the EU (BirdLife International 2015). The new winter data reported by EU Member States (totalling 202,000–384,000 individuals) suggest that the population has not only ceased to decline since c. 2007, but has even started to recover from earlier declines and expanded its range in several key countries, especially in the Baltic. Specifically, since c. 2007, Poland (59%) has reported stability, Germany (25%) a large increase (>250%), Denmark (6%) a large increase (400%), and Sweden (2%) a large increase (c. 2000%). Estonia and the United Kingdom have reported short-term declines, while Lithuania and Latvia have reported uncertain/unknown trends – but >90% of the European wintering population is reported as stable, fluctuating or increasing, and the overall trend is increasing.
This new population estimate excludes birds wintering outside the EU, such as in Norway and certain parts of SE Europe and the Caucasus. However, based on previous estimates (e.g. BirdLife International 2015; Wetlands International 2020), >95% of the global population winters in the Baltic and adjacent NW Europe, so it is reasonable to assume that this is still the case. As with some other duck species (Pavón‐Jordán et al. 2018), it is possible that climate change has induced a change in the winter distribution range, allowing some birds to winter farther north and east, such as in the northern Gulf of Bothnia or even the White Sea, which are currently poorly monitored (I.K. Petersen & R. Hearn verbally 2020). However, it is also possible that the c. 60% decline recorded between 1992–3 and 2007–9 (Skov et al. 2011) was driven by a decline in the core Russian breeding population. The European Russian breeding population is thought to have declined by 50–80% since 1980 (Krivenko & Vinogradov 2008), which is consistent with the c. 60% decline recorded by Skov et al. (2011), although the recent Russian breeding trend is unknown (Voltzit & Kalyakin 2019).
During 2016-2017, a Species Action Plan (SAP) for the conservation of Velvet Scoter was developed, through a working group involving experts and stakeholders from across its global range (Dagys & Hearn 2018). The aim of the SAP is restore the Western Siberia & Northern Europe/NW Europe population to a favourable conservation status, by significantly reducing negative anthropogenic impacts on survival and breeding success, and understanding the drivers of decline by 2028. Threats considered most likely to have driven the decline include bycatch of wintering birds in fishing gear, accidental and diffused oil pollution, hunting, predation by non-native species, construction of windfarms and other marine infrastructure developments, disturbance and climate change. Much work remains to be done to implement the SAP and to properly restore the species. The effectiveness of those efforts would be best assessed by more regular internationally coordinated surveys of wintering Velvet Scoters (and other waterbirds), covering as wide a geographical area as possible. Such surveys would not only map their distribution and estimate their numbers and trends, but also detect possible range shifts caused by the effects of climate change. Better monitoring in more northerly breeding areas, particularly in Russia, is also desirable (Dagys & Hearn 2018).
The apparent cessation and partial reversal of declines in the wintering population suggest that whichever factors drove the earlier decline may no longer be having such a negative impact on the species. However, the population remains heavily depleted and far below the levels in the early 1990s, when numbers in and around the Baltic were estimated at around 1,000,000 individuals (Durinck et al. 1994; Scott & Rose 1996). In the EU, M. fusca breeds only in Finland (59%), Sweden (40%) and Estonia (<1%). The new data reveal that the total EU breeding population is relatively small (c. 11,000–24,000 pairs), but declining at a rate of around 30% over three generations, thereby highlighting that the species still faces problems in at least some parts of its breeding range.
Although the species’s Baltic wintering population probably declined by c. 60% between 1992–3 and 2007–9 (Skov et al. 2011), the temporal pattern of that decline is not known, and it is unclear when the decline ceased and the population stabilised, before starting to recover. However, the 18.6 year (three generation length) trend period relevant to this species means that trends since c. 2000 must be considered under Criterion A2 (past declines). That year fell roughly halfway between the two Baltic survey periods, so in the absence of any other information, it seems reasonable to infer that roughly half (i.e. c. 30%) of the recorded decline took place after 2001. The overall increase recorded since 2001 has partially offset that decline, but the ongoing decline in the EU breeding population, and uncertainty about the current Russian trend, make it reasonable to infer that the overall decline over the last three generations (c. 2000–2019) may still have approached 30%. This warrants a reclassification of the species’s status, from Vulnerable to Near Threatened under Criterion A2b (past declines). It is not possible to invoke Criteria A3 and A4, as the species is no longer declining.
Relevant comments and information on this fast-track topic are welcome by 8 April 2020, please.
Please note that this forum topic is not designed to be a general discussion about the ecology of the species, but rather a discussion of the species’s Red List status. Therefore, please ensure your comments are relevant to the species’s Red List status and the information requested. By submitting a comment, you confirm that you agree to the BirdLife Forums’ Comment Policy.
Bird, J.P., Martin, R., Akçakaya, H.R., Gilroy, J., Burfield, I.J., Garnett, S., Symes, A., Taylor, J., Şekercioğlu, Ç.H. & Butchart, S.H. (2020). Generation lengths of the world’s birds and their implications for extinction risk. Conservation Biology. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13486
BirdLife International (2015) European Red List of Birds: Velvet Scoter Melanitta fusca. http://datazone.birdlife.org/userfiles/file/Species/erlob/summarypdfs/22724836_melanitta_fusca.pdf
Carboneras, C., Kirwan, G.M. & Sharpe, C.J. (2020) Velvet Scoter (Melanitta fusca). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. https://www.hbw.com/node/52922
Dagys, M. and Hearn, R. (compilers) (2018) International Single Species Action Plan for the Conservation of the Velvet Scoter (Melanitta fusca): Western Siberia & Northern Europe/NW Europe population. AEWA Technical Series No. XX, Bonn, Germany. http://www.trackingactionplans.org/SAPTT/downloadDocuments/openDocument?idDocument=35
Durinck, J., Skov, H., Jensen, F.P. and Pihl, S. (1994) Important Marine Areas for Wintering Birds in the Baltic Sea. EU DG XI research contract no. 2242/90-09-01. Ornis Consult report.
Krivenko, V.G. and Vinogradov, V.G. (2008) Ptitsy vodnoi sredy i ritmy klimata Severnoi Evrazii (Birds of the Aquatic Environment and Climate Rhythms of Northern Eurasia), Moscow: Nauka.
Pavón‐Jordán, D., Clausen, P., Dagys, M., Devos, K., Encarnaçao, V., Fox, A.D., Frost, T., Gaudard, C., Hornman, M., Keller, V. and Langendoen, T., 2019. Habitat‐and species‐mediated short‐and long‐term distributional changes in waterbird abundance linked to variation in European winter weather. Diversity and Distributions, 25(2), pp.225-239.
Scott, D.A. and Rose, P.M. (1996) Atlas of Anatidae populations in Africa and western Eurasia. Wetlands International.
Skov, H. et al. (2011) Waterbird populations and pressures in the Baltic Sea (Vol. 550). Nordic Council of Ministers.
Voltzit & Kalyakin (2019) Database of the project on Atlas of Breeding Birds of European Russia. Wetlands International (2020) Waterbird Population Estimates: wpe.wetlands.org