Commentary by Erwin Vermeulen
The slow growth and large fat stores characteristic of many pelagic seabird chicks might be an evolutionary adaptation to infrequent and unpredictable food provisioning by parents, while increased heat generation and insulation freed adults from brooding requirements.
It is one of nature’s great survival tactics, but relatively helpless, fat seabird chicks have always attracted hunter-gatherers. Historically, birds were taken for meat, eggs, skins, and down. With maybe the exception of skins, they are still “harvested” for these reasons but the methods have changed over time. More efficient tools have exposed seabirds to excessive exploitation.
By nature, most seabirds are already sensitive to adult mortality because they produce small clutch sizes and have delayed maturity, while also being exposed to extreme weather conditions. Until the 20th century, human communities were small and hunting was done primarily from non-motorized boats and so likely had only a limited impact on seabird populations. Since then, a growing human population, with mechanized transport and powerful guns, has increased the hunting pressure on seabird populations.
Seabirds are important “members” of the marine ecosystems. Seabird numbers can be used as indicators of fish stocks, or the health of the marine ecosystem at large.
Sadly seabirds are also among the most threatened “families” of birds on the planet. Most seabirds live for decades and reproduce slowly. The leading cause of mortality for healthy adult seabirds is incidental death in fishing gear. In Iceland, the Faroes’ Northern neighbor, approximately 120,000 birds die in gillnets annually. There are no figures for by-catch in the Faroese fishing industry.
There is a relatively new threat: large-scale, climate-related ecological changes have disrupted the food web in Nordic waters. The distribution of some of the marine food sources, upon which seabirds are dependent, is changing as a result of climate change. In the North Atlantic, a northward shift in the distribution of plankton and copepods is affecting the numbers and distribution of some fish species that are important for the seabirds, particularly sand eels. These changes are believed to be the cause of the massive breeding failures among seabirds in Iceland, the Faroes, Scotland, and Norway, that started in 2004.
Over recent years, a decreasing number of birds have shown up in the colonies, and local populations are in trouble with few chicks being raised. This is the case in the Faroe Islands:
Some summers the few Arctic terns that breed, leave their eggs and young to die. If the Kittiwakes have a few fledged young, the question is whether these young will survive through their first winter, since they start life in poor condition. At times, dead or half-dead, starved Puffins drift ashore on the beaches with the onshore wind.
2014 will mark the 10th year in a row with little to no food for the Faroese puffins. The local hunters have only caught breeding birds the last 10 years, since there haven’t been any young. This means an ever-bigger reduction in the population than would occur in normal bad-breeding years.
Calculations in Røst, Norway show that the puffins there decline by 7% per year. At that rate the Faroese puffins would be extinct around the year 2025 if the hunting goes on. Officially the puffins are protected now, but our volunteers on the ground in the Faroes still see “harvested” puffins in the villages.
Puffins are not the only species hunted. On land, the traditional way of “fowling” is by using the fleygastong — a net between two thin arms on a long pole. This method is used for hunting puffins and fulmars. At sea, newly fledged fulmars are picked up from boats using a deep landing net. Shooting occurs at sea in winter and the species hunted are shags, guillemots (or murres), razorbills and puffins. Common guillemots and puffins have been the most important for generations.
Once the common guillemot was the most important target, but a heavy decline in the population started in the late 1950s. It is now only allowed to take the eggs of the common guillemot with permission from the Faroese Museum of Natural History. In total 1,000 to 2,000 common guillemot eggs are taken each year.
Approximately 2,400 pairs of gannets breed on Mykineshólmur, Píka and Flatidrangur on Mykines, the most westerly island in the Faroes. Men from Mykines annually catch several hundred fledged gannet chicks, called “grásúla,” at the end of August or start of September. The corpses are divided between the landowners and hunters.
On Skugvoy traditional seabird hunting and chick collection of Manx shearwater is still practiced to some extent. Monitoring data indicates a decline in breeding success and bird numbers there.
With the puffin and guillemot almost gone, over the last few decades fulmars have been the most important bounty, with a yearly hunt of about 50,000 to 100,000 birds, most newly fledged young. As is well known practice in fisheries, when one species is exhausted, we just increase the hunting pressure on the other available species.
A gull-like relative of albatrosses and shearwaters, the Northern fulmar is a bird of the Northern oceans. It is a long-lived bird — more than 30 years — that begins breeding at an exceptionally old age for birds. Most do not breed until they are at least 8 to 12 years old. The fulmar is monogamous, and forms long-term pair bonds. It returns to the same nest site year after year. The Northern fulmar breeds on steep cliff sides, where a single egg is laid in May. That same month the eggs are “harvested” in several places in the Faroe Islands.
The Northern fulmar is currently one of the most numerous seabirds in the Northern Hemisphere, with an estimated population of 5-7 million pairs.
It is well known among commercial fishermen for scavenging offal thrown from whaling and fishing boats. It was long thought that this adaptation to the rapid expansion of commercial fishing and whaling in the last century boosted the increase in the population of fulmars and now that new mechanized methods of processing fish at sea have reduced the amount of refuse the numbers of these birds have begun to decline again.
New studies suggest that, while fisheries waste is an important food source for fulmars in some areas, it was not the only cause for the population expansion. A very logical explanation that hunters don’t like to hear is that fulmar expansion could have resulted from a decrease in human predation. In the 17th century, the population outside of the Arctic was believed to occur at just two sites: St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides and Grimsey off northern Iceland. During the 19th and 20th century, fulmars spread from Grimsey to the coast of mainland Iceland, and colonized the Faroe Islands between 1816 and 1839. In the early 20th century, island communities on Iceland, the Faroes and St Kilda took fulmars to provide the people with supplies of oil, down and meat.
Icelandic government statistics recorded annual catches of 20-60,000. Estimates of Faroese catches in the 1930s were even higher at 80,000 per annum, and those from St Kilda were in the 6-10,000 region. The harvests on St Kilda, Iceland and the Faroes had all decreased dramatically by the end of the 1930s. St Kilda was evacuated, and legislation in Iceland and the Faroes banned the harvest of young fulmars following their identification as a source of psittacosis infection. A rapid expansion of the fulmars followed.
Over the past three decades harvest levels have declined drastically in the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland by up to 50%. A combination of more restrictive hunting regulations and declining seabird populations are thought to have caused this.
The Fulmar hunt starts around the third week of August and lasts into the second week of September. Many of the boats catch between 100 and 300 fulmar young each day and the boats from towns like Hvannasund, close to the biggest fulmar colonies, take as many as 900 young fulmars each day.
While patrolling with the Brigitte Bardot and the small boats, we could see the locals scoop up hundreds of fulmar chicks each day. The young are not helpless, as they paddle and flap out of the way of approaching vessels and resist attacking skuas, but they are no matches for the fast maneuverable boats with nets on long poles. Some men kill the birds by swinging the body around while holding the head; others pull the head straight off.
When the grind took place in Sandur, the fishery patrol/search-and-rescue vessel Brimil was not there to defend it against Sea Shepherd volunteers as it had been during the almost-grind at Hvalba a few weeks earlier. Instead the Brimil had both of its navy ribs in the water, the crew equipped with nets, to kill fulmars in the waters north of Vagar Island.
All those boats out on the water killing fulmars also pose a threat to the pilot whales. August is statistically the bloodiest month of the grind hunt season for a reason. The bird-killing boats will report sighted pilot whales and partake in a grind.
Even though news articles claim that there are many more “havhestaugum” (fulmar chicks) this year than there have been in the last 3 years, and that the numbers are also above average for the last 14 years, the fulmar numbers in the Faroe Islands have decreased drastically over the last 20 years.
There is one interesting parallel between the fulmar and pilot whale hunt; the consumption of the meat exposes the locals to health risks.
Chlamydophila psittaci was detected in 10% of 431 fulmars examined from the Faroe Islands in 1999. The bacterial disease is transmitted by inhalation, contact or ingestion among birds and to mammals. Psittacosis in birds and in humans often starts with flu-like symptoms and becomes a life-threatening pneumonia. During the winter of 1929–1930, widespread epidemics of chlamydophilosis (psittacosis) occurred in Europe and the United States. From the Faroe Islands, 174 cases of human chlamydophilosis were reported between 1930 and 1938. The human death rate was 20% and was especially high — 80% — in pregnant women. The disease originated in Argentina and was exported from there by shipments of pet birds. Infected and dead parrots were thrown overboard during the journey and, in that way, infected the fulmars. The first human case in the Faroes appeared on the southernmost island of Suduroy. From 1933 to 1938 severe outbreaks occurred on Sandoy and other islands.
In Iceland, the first human chlamydophilosis cases linked to fulmars were reported on the Vestmanna Islands in 1939. In all, six cases were reported; all occurred after birds had been prepared for human consumption. After the outbreaks, hunting fulmars for human consumption was prohibited in 1938 and the ban lasted until 1954 in the Faroes.
If it is an incentive to end the killing, that is great, but the fact that the consumption of these animals is bad for the human health should not be the reason to end the hunts. Comprehensive and complex changes are taking place in the marine ecosystem, underlining more than ever the need to manage all factors that affect seabirds and marine mammals: climate change, commercial fisheries, oil spills and oil exploration, hunts and pollution.
There are no hunting statistics in the Faroes and only poor population estimates, so any claim of sustainable hunting is bogus. For those who have seen the bird cliffs in the Shetlands or Spitsbergen, it is clear that those in the Faroes pale in comparison.
Today the seabirds are, just like the pilot whales, hunted for cultural and recreational reasons, rather than for basic subsistence.
With all the other threats facing seabirds and marine mammals, these barbaric relics will have to go!