Fulmars, Plastic and Nurdles

January 19th 2020

Fulmars, Plastic and Nurdles

It is probably safe to say that most of us are, by now, aware of the pollution of our seas by plastic. Sadly, we are all responsible to some degree for the current status of this ‘not going away soon’ problem. Happily, many of us are also more than willing participants in beach cleans; either organised or simply when out for walks.

Avril and I are volunteer Shorewatchers for Whale and Dolphin Conservation www.whales.org/shorewatch and ‘our’ Shorewatch site is beside Stoerhead Lighthouse. Apart from recording the cetaceans seen at the site we also get loads of opportunities to chat with some of the thousands of visitors to the area each year.

It was 29th September 2019 while watching a family group of five Harbour Porpoise that we took the opportunity of pointing them out to a Dutch couple quietly having breakfast beside their car.

To cut a long’ish story short the man was Dr Jan A. van Franeker from Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. Turns out he has been studying plastic in the stomachs of Northern Fulmars, Fulmarus glacialis, since the 1970’s.

The birds being studied are those found dead on beaches and, so far, he has only had birds from countries with North Sea coastlines. After a bit more discussion we all decide that here was a gap to be filled and an opportunity not to be missed.

So, you probably now have an idea where this story is heading!

We get hundreds of Fulmars breeding and roosting on the cliffs of the Stoer peninsula each year and some of these will certainly die due to old age, starvation or predation. Most of those that die will probably never be washed up but the few that do could help us understand the extent and type of pollution in the waters around Assynt and the west coast generally. They would also become part of this long-term study.

Your mission!

Your mission then, should you fancy accepting it, would be to simply let Assynt Field Club know as soon as possible if you come across a Fulmar carcase around the coast of Assynt. We would then do our very best to collect it. A six-figure grid reference of the location and a photograph of the bird would be very, very useful if at all possible then just email us the details and photo on assyntwildlife@gmail.com.

After collection, the carcase will be frozen and stored until being transported, along with others, to Wageningen University.The carcase does not have to be complete, or even very fresh, just as long as you think the stomach might still be present. Jan van Franeker is not too concerned with the condition of the bird, the main area of interest being its stomach as this is where any plastic it may have ingested will be found. The rest of the carcase is however very useful when trying to age and possibly sex the bird.

Here is a link to the project’s website with lots more information about the project, and data from, the ongoing research.

If you want a very quick summary of the findings for the last five-year period to 2018 here’s an extract from their –

Annual/Interim Project Report for Period 2018

The Fulmars from the UK (mainly birds from NE England, Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands), are still far off the OSPAR [Oslo/Paris Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic] long term policy target which requires that at most 10% of birds may exceed the level of 0.1g of plastic in the stomach. In this the situation the UK is not different from that in other parts of the North Sea.

Over the current 2014-2018 period, 93 ‘UK’ fulmar stomachs were investigated, among which 88% contained some plastic. Each fulmar on average had 23 plastic pieces in the stomach weighing 0.25 g. Overall, 49% of UK fulmars had more than 0.1g of plastic in the stomach.

One encouraging fact from all the data so far is that the long-term average weight of plastic in each fulmar is very slightly down. So, the more data we can help supply the much better understanding of the situation Jan and his colleagues will be able to gain.


One of the attached photos shows plastic found in the stomach of one fulmar. This bird, reference ESC-2018-006, was collected on the West Sands at St. Andrews on 4 March 2018. It was a second calendar year female and her stomach contained 43 pieces of plastic weighing 0.2988g in total. So, above the average mentioned previously.

The eight pieces of plastic shown at the left of the photo are industrial plastic pellets, or nurdles as they are often referred to. These are small regular shaped pieces of plastic that are utilised in various industrial process to make many of the plastic items we use in our daily lives.

Millions of these nurdles are spilt each year while being transported and handled; they end up washing down drains etc. and so pollute our rivers, seas and oceans.

If you would like to know more about nurdles here’s a link that will also tell you about The Great Global Nurdle Hunt over 13th to 22nd March https://www.nurdlehunt.org.uk/.

We look forward to hearing from you with your fulmar finds.

David Haines

Addendum (Feb 12 2020)

Nurdles recently featured on Dutch TV along with Jan. Here’s the link to a short Field Club article which contains a link to the 7 minute TV programme.

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