Lying 7 miles off the Pembrokeshire coast Grassholm Island is the oldest RSPB reserve in Wales. When purchased in 1948 it was home to around 7,000 pairs of northern gannet, today that number has increased to 36,000 making it the 3rd largest colony in the UK (behind Bass Rock and St Kilda) and the only gannetry in Wales.
Regular readers will know that each October RSPB staff from here on Ramsey Island make the annual pilgrimage to ‘fire fight’ a problem that lies hidden from view from the thousands of tourists who take boat trips around the island each summer. To them Grassholm is a spectacular sight to behold, one of the jewels in the already brimming Welsh wildlife crown. But come autumn, when the majority of adult birds have left for winter quarters and most of this year’s young have successfully fledged, a grim side to Grassholm is unveiled. 18 tonnes of marine plastic reveals itself in hideous technicolour and it is our job to cut free those birds unlucky enough to be ensnared in its deadly grip.
Over 80% of the nests on the island are estimated to contain plastic waste, the vast majority of which comes from the fishing industry. Synthetic rope is the biggest culprit followed by mono-filament netting and line. Domestic plastic is relatively scarce but packaging tape, the kind many people cut from parcels on a daily basis also features along with the obligatory crisp packets, plastic bags and balloons.
Our small team of RSPB staff and volunteers travel out by jet boat, our skipper expertly landing us in a narrow gut on bare rock. We wait until October as most of the birds will have left and disturbance to non-affected birds is minimised.
The number of birds caught up in this plastic mess varies greatly from year to year. 2017 was a ‘good year’ in the sense that only 26 fledglings and 2 adult birds needed freeing. In some years the total can be over 100. Since 2005 over 600 birds have been freed from an otherwise slow and painful death.
Ramsey Intern Sarah Parmor carefully takes hold of an entangled young gannet ready to cut it free
Ramsey and Grassholm warden Lisa Morgan and volunteer Morgan Wicks cutting free an entangled young gannet
Adult birds mistake this plastic floating on the ocean surface for seaweed from which they would naturally build their nest pedestals. As the chicks grow and begin moving around on the nest some are unlucky enough to become tangled in a strand of fibre which slowly winds around the leg the more the young bird moves and tightens like a tourniquet as it grows. By the time the bird reaches fledging age, at around 90 days after hatching, it will be firmly tethered to the nest. The adult birds keep feeding it but will eventually abandon the site as the instinct to migrate becomes overwhelming. Without our intervention these otherwise healthy young birds would simply starve to death on the nest.
Not all are as fortunate and some die before we can get to them. We cannot carry out this work any earlier in the season as it involves going into the heart of the colony which would cause more harm than good. Healthy young birds would be scattered from their nests, become separated from their parents and many more would die.
90 days of hard effort has gone into raising these young only for them to starve or be strangled as a result of man made plastic waste
On the plus side, most birds that we cut free are fit and healthy and head straight for the freedom of the sea the moment we release them. Not all are as fortunate though and suffer deep wounds to the leg from the plastic that has been cutting into them for possibly several months. It can be a painstaking process to cut these birds free and while some will heal, we sometimes see the leg drop off in front of our eyes. But the bird is otherwise healthy and while it is perhaps questionable if a one legged gannet can survive (they use their feet during take off) we feel it is worth these birds having a shot at life.
This makes it all worth while: a healthy gannet fledgling freed from it's plastic snare
We frequently get asked ‘what are you going to do about it?!’ Removal of the plastic is impractical. The quantities involved are large (an estimated 18 tonnes on Grassholm which is only 9ha in size) and it would be logistically challenging to remove from such a remote and exposed offshore island. Even if possible it would require removal of over 80% of all the nest sites which would likely have serious negative impacts on the social structure and functioning of the colony. And the sad fact is, even if we could remove all the plastic, it would very likely look exactly the same again within 5 to 10 years. In the short term freeing of entangled birds is the most viable option to reduce this type of mortality, all the while using the experience to bring it to the public’s wider attention via the media. The number of birds affected is relatively small given the size of the colony but the impact on individuals is obviously significant plus at a time when seabirds in general are under pressure it is one more man made problem they could do without.
In the long run a reduction in the amount of plastic released in the marine environment is obviously desirable. This is clearly easier said than done but the more the world wakes up to this problem the nearer a long term solution will be. In the case of Grassholm there is no escaping the fact that the fishing industry contributes the vast majority of plastic waste. Whether it be through accidental snagging of nets that break or need cutting free, fishing gear trashed in storms or the deliberate dumping of old netting at sea it is perhaps time for someone from the industry to step forward and try and offer a solution to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in the oceans as a result. Grassholm is merely the smallest tip of a very large iceberg .
As mentioned above the media can play a big role in helping highlight this issue. This year we were accompanied by a team from Sky News filming as part of their excellent Ocean Rescue campaign. As an organisation Sky are phasing out all single use plastics in their own business and supply chain and have recently set up a fund to help other business and start-ups do the same so we were delighted to have them along. We would like to say a big thank you to Thomas Moore and Nathan Hale for covering the story and we look forward to seeing it. If you don’t have access to Sky a short video can be found here
A big thank you to the volunteers who accompanied Lisa and myself - Morgan Wicks (skipper with Thousand Islands Expeditions, a St Davids based boat company that land visitors on Ramsey and take them around Grassholm) and to Sarah Parmor (Ramsey Intern).Thanks also to Tim and Beth from Venture Jet for once again getting us safely out to Grassholm and for expertly picking a gap in the weather in what has been a stormy autumn
No doubt we’ll do it all again next year……
For a look at previous year’s blogs on this subject follow this link
Grassholm at the height of the breeding season in July. Gaudy plastic in the nests are clearly visible (photo: D Boyle)
Synthetic rope around an adult gannets bill (taken during a summer visit)
It's not only fishing plastic that causes a problem - this year we saw several cases of fishing hooks embedded in gannets moths