As a sea bird enthusiast and researcher, I was more than treated during our vessel trip to the Arctic. We saw hundreds of sea birds and could observe their behaviour at sea, in their real environment. Pelagic birds (sea birds that spend their life off shore, far from coastal areas) are an amazing thing to watch. Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) have a beautiful flight, more than occasionally shearing the water, as if to show off a little bit. And by watching the birds, I was impressed by the number of northern fulmars around.
Fulmars in the North Sea are indicators of good environmental state, as one of the OSPAR objectives to monitor marine litter (Ecological Quality Objectives for the North Sea (EcoQOs’)). Fulmars are part of the order Procellariiformes. Birds from this order, which include petrels, albatrosses and shearwaters have a very reduced ability to regurgitate hard/non-digestible material as the connection between the proventriculus (aka “chemical stomach”) and the gizzard (aka “mechanical stomach”) is very narrow. Thus, the amount of plastics found in their stomachs can be considered a true indicator of the amount of plastics in the sea. Therefore, I am so used to all these fulmars ingesting loads of plastics and ending up dead on beaches that seeing so many fulmars alive altogether was a bit overwhelming to me! How twisted is that it has become abnormal to see animals possibly healthy in their natural environment?
North Sea EcoQO: There should be less than 10% of northern fulmars having more than 0.1 g of plastic particles in the stomach in samples of 50 to 100 beach-washed fulmars found from each of four to five areas of the North Sea over a period of at least five years. Quality Status Report 2010, OSPAR Commission
Fulmars in the Arctic had darker plumage than the ones I had seen before and according to experts (aka Jan van Franeker), it is quite common that the birds from far north have a darker brown/grey plumage, instead of the white/light grey we are more used to seeing. As stated in the Save the North Sea Fulmar Dissection Manual, the plumage colour can therefore be an indicator of the origin of the bird.
By seeing so many fulmars (they follow ships, so they were a constant on our trip), I wondered if any similar work to the one for the OSPAR objectives was actually done on fulmars or other seabirds, in Norway and Svalbard. I found very little on the subject, so I suppose it might not be a big thing as of yet. I was told to contact the “seabird person” for Norway, but he hadn’t gotten back to me until the closing of this post :). From all the latest conferences I’ve been to and papers I have read, the scientific community claims for the standardization of methodologies when looking at marine debris/plastics in order to be able to compare data and come up with concrete results and possible solutions. Using sea birds (especially fulmars) as a sentinel species to monitor marine litter has proved to be effective and in my humble opinion should be expanded to wherever possible, obviously adjusting to regional differences.
If you wish to know more about the 2010 Quality Status Report by the OSPAR Commission, click here. As of the 2010 report, the Arctic Sea lacks information on marine litter. As for us, the Celtic Seas however, amount of litter is of concern, but pressure is unknown (we are working on getting more data, people!).
Here are some brilliant pictures taken by brilliant researchers (Sam Fredriksson & Ardo Robijn) using brilliant cameras during our Arctic cruise.
Published by Heidi Acampora