Science - February 17, 2005

Fulmars are starving to death

In February 2004 hundreds of dead fulmars washed up on the North Sea coasts of England, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Germany. When he carried out autopsies, Dr Jan Andries van Franeker of Alterra Texel found that the birds had been suffering from hunger for five months. He believes that this was not due to the climate but human action.

Van Franeker could see from the state of the birds’ plumage that they had gone hungry, as they were not moulting. ‘Moulting is an energy-consuming process for the birds, and it ceases if they do not have sufficient energy,’ he explains. ‘Their moulting stopped on average around November, and it was March.’ That means that they had not had enough food to eat for five months; they were starving. The bird is at the top of the food chain, and starving fulmars means that something is wrong in the North Sea.

That’s not all; there are other alarming reports. Summer storms killed about half of the two thousand Sandwich tern chicks that breed on the Farne Islands. The number of breeding guillemots has not been as low as it is now since 1977. Danish smelt fishers have difficulty catching 300,000 tons each year, whereas their yearly quota is 800,000 tons. /MW

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