Essay and photographs by Eirik Grønningsæter
The ocean has been looked upon as pristine, wild and impossible to deplete because of its abundance. However, during the last 50 years or so, collapses in fish stocks worldwide combined with an increased knowledge about our ocean, have led toseveral alarming discoveries.
The marine ecosystem is complex and difficult to understand, but there are clues we can use to monitor it. Seabirds are easily visible, and thus relatively straightforward to study. They are also completely dependent on the ocean. If the seabirds struggle, we can be pretty sure that the ocean is struggling, too. Seabirds are therefore perfect indicators of the health of our oceans, and at the moment, it does not look good. This essay is a celebration of the seabirds of the North East Atlantic.
According to the IUCN red list, seabirds are the most threatened avian group in the world. Out of the world’s 346 seabird species, 28% of them are considered globally endangered and another 10% are at immediate risk to join this category.
Norwegian scientists have studied and monitored seabirds along the Norwegian coast intensively since the early 1960s. Through their work, they have found that only about one-third of the kittiwake population remains today compared to 1980, and still it continues to decline 6-14% each year depending on the colony. Only half the population of the Atlantic puffin remains, and in many colonies along the Norwegian coast, few chicks have fledged in the last twenty years. The top predator of the Barent’s Sea, the glaucous gull, has declined by 65% since 1986 in the Norwegian Arctic region.
The bird that causes most concern is the common guillemot. Barely one percent of the common guillemot population still exists on the Norwegian mainland today! Coastal species like the European shag, black guillemot, and many of our seagulls have also seriously decreased in number over the last thirty years. The list could have been made longer. Virtually every sea bird colony in the countries bordering the North Atlantic shows similar trends.
There are many reasons for this decrease, and they vary between species as well as between different colonies of the same species. Lack of food is by far the main reason, but the cause of this is complex and numerous. Overfishing means insufficient prey to sustain the birds. Global warming causes our ocean to acidify, which in turn causes fish to spawn at different times so fish larvae no longer drift by bird colonies at a time that coincides with the seabirds’ breeding cycles. Disappearing sea ice in the Arctic also means less ice algae and less food for zooplankton and fish, which birds prey upon. Warming weather also means that copepods, which some seabirds depend on, are disappearing.
Population numbers are currently still in the hundreds of thousands for most species, so there ought to be enough time to act, though history tells us that high numbers are no guarantee for long term survival. Europeans need not look to the tigers of India, mountain gorillas in Uganda, or the lemurs of Madagascar to find threatened species. We have them right outside our doorstep. Scientists agree that the common guillemot is probably the next bird species in Europe to go extinct. Our seabirds are clearly not only living on the edge of cliffs, they are also on the edge of survival. Will we be able to change the trend? Only a few hundred of the world’s 10,000 bird species are seabirds. However, due to the number of individuals, they are a very important part of the marine ecosystem. It is crucial to remember that this is not only about the seabirds, but about our ocean, a vital resource for millions of people. The birds have given us a sign: Our Ocean is sick. It is now up to us to react to that sign.
Eirik has been a professional wildlife photographer and nature guide since 2007. Eirik has held several exhibitions, and is the author of one natural history book. In between his photography and guiding, he works as a field biologist doing fieldwork for various scientific projects. Though his main interest is birds, he has also worked with whales, large predators, and bats in different parts of the world. He has worked in High Arctic – Svalbard every season since 2001. Eirik is a highly sought after guide and photographer in the expedition industry, and was recently inducted into the Elysium Artists for the Arctic team as naturalist and contributing photographer.