Unfortunately this week saw a sad happening on St Kilda when a dead fulmar was reported by Cleit 97. I went up to look, and found a fulmar with over a metre of fishing line coming out of its bill, presumably having swallowed a fish hook. The line was jammed solid in the rocks on the top of the cleit. The bird was one with a nest on the top of the cleit, and it seems likely that as it flew off the nest, the line had tangled up in the rocks and the bird either died from internal bleeding from ripping the fishing hook when it flew off, or starved by being trapped beside the cleit. I removed the hook from the bird’s stomach, and it appears that it is likely that it was from a recreational fishing line rather than an industrial long-lining boat. The saddest thing was that not only had the bird itself died, but the nest on which it was sitting will fail too, as the single partner left behind will not be able to incubate the egg on its own.
Long-line fishing is a big problem for seabirds, with birds feeding on baited hooks before they sink, becoming hooked and drowning as the line is dragged down. Indeed, in the Southern Ocean, mortality due to long-line fishing activity is the major reason for the decline of many populations of albatross, and measures are now being put in place to develop techniques which prevent this problem. In the North Atlantic, fulmars are the major species caught in long-line fishing. However, a big problem caused by fishing is also birds getting accidentally entangled and killed by swallowing hooks and line from derelict fishing gear (either industrial or recreational) which is lost or deliberately discarded at sea. Such gear can continue to “ghost fish” for many years, and it seems likely that this is what happened to our fulmar.
Indeed, a couple of days later, a live gannet completely tangled up in fishing net was found by the QinetiQ guys out near Boreray. Luckily this bird had a happier ending, as the guys managed to hook the bird out of the water, cut the net away and free it, so that it will live to see another day. However, these two incidents emphasise the effects that human activities have on many species, even on remote islands such as ours.
Sarah, Seabird and Marine Ranger