Pilot study initiated to gather more information
High on the cliffs of Helgoland, a small German archipelago in the North Sea, environmental activists and journalists are abseiling the high cliffs in an attempt to collect plastic trash from the nests of birds.
This pilot project, conducted within the Lummenfelsen nature reserve (the world's smallest nature reserve), strives to measure the impact of environmental plastic debris on the birds and the marine environment. The effects on the birds, particularly gannets and guillemots, can be clearly seen. Quite a number perish after consuming the plastic debris, while others use them as nesting material, endangering their chicks which get entangled in them. Although the population of both species is not endangered, the affected birds die a prolonged and agonising death. For some, their bodies remain entangled in the nets for years.
In this initiative of Greenpeace and GEO, an investigation is being undertaken to find out more about the types of plastics the birds use to build their nests, the origin of these plastics and whether the deaths of birds can be reduced through human intervention.
Such information is currently lacking – a situation that the researchers hope to improve on, so as to determine the causes of Lummenfelsen's plastic waste problem.
“The ocean is the largest garbage dump on the planet,“ said Lars Abromeit, staff editor of GEO magazine. He added that we quickly lose sight of the consequences of our actions, but they nevertheless come back to us; thus, he wanted to draw attention to the issue and explore possible solutions.
Looking at the cliffs from a distance, colourful plastic threads can be seen. Many of these are the remnants of dolly ropes, which fishermen use to protect their fishing nets from wear and tear. The dolly ropes are designed in such a way that their individual threads break off upon contact with the seafloor.
Calling the usage of dolly lines destructive, marine expert Sandra Schöttner from Greenpeace said that there must be legislation to prohibit the use of dolly ropes. “We need a shift to environmentally friendly, biodegradable alternatives," she said.
Now that it is not the birds' breeding season, environmentalists and researchers are using this time to scale the northern part of the rockface to reach the nests. As part of their research, they retrieve a number of nests while removing the plastic waste from another group of nests. A third group of nests are left untouched, to serve as a reference for comparison.
This scientific study is a collaboration of the Jordsand, Biological Institute of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), Institute of Avian Research “Ornithological Helgoland”, and Research and Technology Centre (FTZ) at University Kiel, and is supported by Greenpeace.