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Lethal Plastic Pollution Depleting UK Seabird Population

10 February 2016 | Exchange

Wildscreen recently commissioned award-winning wildlife photographer Sam Hobson to document the plastic pollution issue on Grassholm in Wales which is home to one of the biggest gannet breeding colonies, or ‘gannetries', in the world.

An adult gannet preening (c) Sam Hobson / Wildscreen Exchange

The problem
Gannets are long-living seabirds, individuals have been known to live for up to 35 years, which produce just one offspring per year between March and September, although two egg clutches have also been recorded. The eggs are incubated for up to 45 days by both parents and after fledging, most juveniles begin to migrate south between August and September. The nests of the gannet are naturally composed of seaweed, feathers and plant material, but due to the location of Grassholm and the oceanic currents that surround it, over the past few decades, masses of plastic has accumulated on its shores and this is often used instead. Mistaking the plastic for their usual nesting material, gannets collect the litter and place it within their nests, with most on Grassholm now being made up primarily of plastic items.

Typical gannet nest on Grassholm (c) Sam Hobson / Wildscreen ExchangeMost of the plastic litter on and around Grassholm is discarded fishing gear such as lines and nets, balloons and packing material, and it is estimated that there is around 18 tonnes of manmade litter on this island alone. This litter, especially the nylon fishing lines and nets, can easily become tangled around the feet, legs and necks of gannets and their chicks. Entanglement causes numerous deaths every breeding season as the birds are unable to fly away to feed or to migrate south for the winter. The fishing lines and nets can also become wrapped around their necks causing asphyxiation.

What is being done to help?
A juvenile gannet who never managed to leave its nest (c) Sam Hobson / Wildscreen ExchangeEvery year at the end of the breeding season, a group of volunteers and scientists, led by RSPB Ramsey Island warden Greg Morgan, visit Grassholm and attempt to cut as many entangled individuals free as possible. It is estimated that the team free around 50 birds per breeding season and while this seems a small amount, this has a great impact on the global gannet population due to their slow reproduction rates. Unfortunately, it is not possible to remove the litter to reduce the risk of entanglement as gannets return to the same nest every year and removing an individual's nest could mean that they won't breed at all. As Grassholm supports 10% of the total world population of gannets, removing the nests could lead to a drastic reduction in the global population size.

Gannet nests post-breeding season with volunteer looking on (c) Sam Hobson / Wildscreen ExchangeThe floating plastic material surrounding Grassholm is often ingested by the gannets who mistake it for their usual prey, mackerel and herring, and then return to the nest to feed it to their chick. The plastic that is ingested by gannets and other seabirds can remain in their digestive system and can eventually cause their mortality, or it can be regurgitated and fed to their chick which can be fatal.

The scientists that visit Grassholm are also collecting data on the migration patterns and life history of the gannets to gather more information on the species which can be used to implement effective conservation measures. A proposed offshore wind farm in the area could disrupt the migration patterns of this struggling gannet population, so studies into their dispersal are key to not causing any further issues for these birds.

A gannet being freed by volunteers after becoming entangled and ingesting fishing line (c) Sam Hobson / Wildscreen ExchangeThe images in this news article and many others from the commission will be available to not-for-profit organisations via the Wildscreen Exchange over the coming months.

How you can help

  • Don't take part in balloon releases
  • Reduce, reuse and recycle plastic products
  • Join an organised beach clean in your local area to remove litter that could be dangerous to marine life
  • Spread the word in your local community to encourage others to take action to protect our oceans
  • Donate to Wildscreen to help us fund more photographers and filmmakers to make sure these important stories get told

Find out more

  • Read the article featured in the Daily Mail
  • Find out more about the gannet on Arkive
  • See more images that have been donated to the Wildscreen Exchange by some of the world's best wildlife photographers


What are you looking for?

Please note that arkive.org is now closed

If you’re looking for information about a species, try National Geographic Photo Ark or IUCN Red List