Studying plastic-eating seabirds in addictive Ísafjörður

Tuesday 22. December 2015 | By: Birna Lárusdóttir

I came to Iceland for the first time in February 2010. The sun was shining in Ísafjörður when the plane landed. An exception, as we would learn very soon. There was snow everywhere and we were super-excited about this big adventure ahead. We (Carla, Marlous and I, German and Dutch students from the Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Science in the Netherlands) were doing our Bachelor's in Coastal and Marine Management. Not only did we get the unique chance to study for six months abroad but we were even able to go to Ísafjörður in the crazy Westfjords, a town with only 2,500 inhabitants! We were the first of our type to study Coastal and Marine Management at the University Centre of the Westfjords. After us, every year Dutch students have visited the Westfjords; a great opportunity for the students and a nice change for the existing student cohort in town.

Plastic debris in seabirds of the North Sea

Prior to my departure I had made an arrangement with the Dutch marine biologist Jan van Franeker from The Marine Research Institute IMARES. If I could find forty dead fulmars he would supervise my internship which was required by my home university after our stay in Iceland. Sounds crazy to you? Let me explain: Since the 80s Jan has been doing research on northern fulmars, a true (and so beautiful) seabird occurring all over the northern Atlantic, spending all its life at sea except during breeding season. This bird has the terrible habit of regularly feeding on plastic. Marine debris, and especially plastic, has been found in all oceans, at all depths, in every size, colour, shape and origin. You have probably seen the sad pictures of wildlife entangled in six-pack-plastic or fishing line, the more visible consequence of pollution. However, many species around the globe, especially seabirds, are also known to ingest small plastic particles floating on the ocean surface.

As mentioned above, Jan did research on plastic-eating fulmars and I was in love with his work from the very first second. He collected data from birds from all of the North Sea area, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Bear Island and there were details known from Northeast Canada. There was only this little white spot left on his map, called Iceland. As he couldn't get funding to expand his research, he agreed to supervise me if I could somehow manage to find at least forty dead fulmars.

The world is so small in Iceland

So here we were. Standing in freezing temperatures surrounded by friendly, welcoming students and very helpful Icelandic people. I think I contacted every scientist in Iceland, desperately trying to find a way to get those fulmars. In the end it appeared that the right person worked just a few doors away from the University Centre, actually even in the same building. This is one thing you learn really fast in Iceland: the world is so small! If it becomes any smaller I would probably become my own neighbour. Hjalti Karlsson, the head of the Ísafjörður branch of the Marine Research Institute of Iceland, helped me to get some fulmars from the longline fisheries where the birds are sometimes caught accidentally. They scavenge on the bait on the longlines and subsequently drown.

So, I eventually had 58 fresh, dead and wet birds, and again the Icelandic people showed their hospitality. The Natural History Institute in Bolungarvík, a neighbouring village to Ísafjörður, offered me their lab space for the dissection. I don’t know whether they knew what they were getting into. Even when fulmars are freshly dead they still spill that suspicious and characteristic musky fulmar smell, which can be very penetrant and will stick to everybody and everything it comes into contact with. Even wearing gloves couldn’t help and after dissections every sandwich had this slight fulmar-y taste for days.

Results from the Westfjords published in a peer-reviewed journal

The results of this research weren’t surprising, but still kind of depressing. If you think the rest of Iceland is remote, then you haven't seen Ísafjörður. In winter many flights are cancelled and the few roads are frequently closed because of bad weather. But all this remoteness and wilderness far away from urban places didn’t prevent the birds from being contaminated by plastic. Up to 79 percent of my birds had at least one particle in their stomach. On average the fulmars ingested plastics weighing 0.13 grams and had on average six pieces in their stomachs. However, this is much less than in more urbanized regions such as the North Sea, where at that point 95 percent of the birds have been found with ingested plastics (36 pieces on average and weighing 0.33 grams). With these results in my pocket my supervisor gave me the opportunity to publish this in a short article in the peer-reviewed journal Polar Biology.

The supportive people of Ísafjörður, making PhD studies possible

After this project, Jan and I decided to continue our co-operation and since then I have kept working for and with him on several projects on plastic debris. I then returned to Iceland in 2014. I was done with my Bachelor’s, gained some experience at the research institute and was ready to start my Master's studies at the University Centre in Ísafjörður. All the mountains, sea and snow, the kind people in woollen sweaters, Hamraborg (where you get cheap pizza and ice cream until very late), beer bingo, pub quizzes, Viking kayaking and northern lights. I didn’t realize how much I had actually missed it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get more birds from the longline fisheries so I couldn’t continue with my little research project in Iceland… at least not yet.

I met great people, crazy biologists, conservationists and awesome mathematicians; all with the same passion for the sea and the people living around it.  Right now I am most likely starting my PhD on, guess what… surprise, surprise - plastic in seabirds, with Jan as my supervisor. This wouldn’t have been possible without all the supportive people in Ísafjörður, this beautiful little town, squeezed in between the steep mountains. So if you ever have the chance to go there, just do it. Sometimes it is love at second sight, and it can take a while, but then the magic will do its work. You see, Ísafjörður is addictive, and once it has caught you, you will understand why I am sitting here in the Netherlands writing this homage and praising this little place out there in the cold.

Susanne Kühn

(Susanne is finishing her master’s degree in Coastal and Marine Management from the University Centre of the Westfjords in January 2016. The title of her master’s thesis is: “Loss of longline-bait to Northern fulmars: Economic balance between damage from bait-loss and costs of measures to reduce seabird bycatch on the Faroe Islands”.