TEXT (2017): Aevar Petersen, PHOTOS: Carsten Egevang
Black Guillemot, Flatey. The decline in the breeding population is believed to be linked to bycatch in lumpsucker fishing nets.
Harvesting seabirds has a history in Iceland since the human settlement of over 11 hundred years. Still nowadays, numerous seabird colonies are harvested, for the birds, eggs and down. Seabird hunting also takes place outside the breeding season along the coast or from boats at sea. Seabird hunting is not at present for sustenance as in the old days. Now the use of wild birds is more of traditional and cultural interest.
Currently 25 seabird species breed in Iceland. This island, 103,000 sq. km in size, is estimated to hold around 4500 seabird colonies, with a total breeding population of some 7.5 million pairs. Many colonies, such as those of Fulmars, Arctic Terns, and gulls, often comprise only a single species, while many also consist of two or more species. Several species, especially gulls and terns, Cormorant and Shags, nest on level ground, while the most well-known seabird colonies are those on bird cliffs. The huge Látrabjarg, 14 km long and up to 440 m high, holds the greatest diversity of species, with up to 11 breeding species.
Most of the 25 species have been harvested one way or another through the ages. Nowadays 17 species can be harvested. Some newly established species such as Common Gull, Little Gull, and Long-tailed Skua, have no history of harvesting. Others, even relatively new breeders, e.g. three gull species, have been utilized. Presently the most important species are and have been for a long time, the Common Eider, and Common Puffin. Bird cliffs have also been visited for centuries for eggs, and in earlier years, the birds themselves. Breeding species include Brünnich´s Guillemot, Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Kittiwake, and Fulmar.
Hunting statistics has been compiled in Iceland since 1995, but such data are also available for the period 1898-1939. Everyone wishing to hunt must register for a license (eggs and eider down exempted). Landowners need a special license to utilize traditional natural resources. The statistics show that seabird harvest has markedly declined in recent years, not the least as much fewer Puffins are taken. This decline is both due to decline in seabird numbers, linked to climate change, and diminished interest in harvesting wild birds.
The Puffin, here at Látrabjarg, feeds primarily on Sandeels and the population in the West and South have reduced markedly due to food shortage.
The Arctic Tern is one of the Icelandic seabird species that have undergone a decline in recent years.
During recent decades, Iceland has experienced serious declines in several seabird species. Conversely, other species have increased in numbers. The reasons for these changes vary between species. Same is the timing at which declines have been first recorded.
One of the first example of decline is for the Brünnich´s Guillemot, which has decreased at least since the mid-1960s. Hunting on the wintering areas in W-Greenland is considered the most likely reason, while other explanations have also been coined. Black Guillemots started declining in 1987, and the most likely cause of this is bycatch in Lumpsucker fishing nets.
At the same time of these declines were taking place towards the end of the 20th century, other species such as Puffin and Black-legged Kittiwake were increasing and new colonies formed. Both these species are largely Sandeel-feeders, but during the past 10-15 years this fish species has greatly diminished in the waters off S- & W-Iceland. Both these seabird species have been affected and others such as the Arctic Tern. In N-Iceland another fish species, Capelin, is a stable food source for seabirds and some populations have benefitted even increased. However, this fish species has been changing its distribution, moving further west towards Greenland, and out of reach of birds from some colonies. This change has presumably influenced seabirds like Kittiwakes in the north east.
In S- & W-Iceland where the decline in Sandeel-feeders has been most apparent, this was first recorded in Kittiwakes as early as 1997 in Breiðafjörður. Since then many small colonies have vanished. During past 15 years Arctic Terns, have also noticeably declined, many small colonies disappeared and larger ones come down. Razorbill have declined by a fifth during past three decades. It is suggested that birds may have moved from the Northwest colonies to the ones in N-Iceland. A related species, the Common Guillemot, was increasing during the last decades of the 20th century until the population began decreasing around 1995. This is probably due to changes in feeding conditions, but the decrease has been most noticeable in S- and W-Iceland, where Sandeels have declined. The Shag population has fluctuated up and down since start of monitoring 40 years ago. At present the population is on a downturn, besides changes have been observed in breeding distribution, probably due to changes in feeding conditions.
The Razorbill has declined in Iceland during the last three decades.
Common Guillemots at Látrabjarg – the largest and most diverse seabird cliff in Iceland.
Northern Fulmar and Glaucous Gull have seriously declined during past 20 years. The causes for their decline are probably diminishing fishery discards since more stringent regulations have been introduced for the fishery fleet. Regarding the Fulmar, this was an unexpected change as this species had been increasing, with new colonies being established, for over 200 years. This is now the most common seabird breeding in Iceland together with the Puffin.
Black-headed Gulls have been monitored during past decades. A substantial decline has been observed without a clear indication of cause. Other gull species like Great Black-backed Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull have also reduced in numbers. The population of the former has gone down for several decades, without the reason is clear. Simultaneously the latter species increased enormously until serious effects from the Sandeel deficiency started to be felt at the beginning of the 21st century.
The Herring Gull, like the Lesser Black-backed Gull and the Black-headed Gull, started breeding in Iceland in the early 20th century. The core breeding area of Herring Gulls is in East-Iceland but for many decades this species has extended its breeding range towards west in the country. No monitoring is carried out on this species, so little details are available on the changes in the population.
Two more seabird species, Arctic Skua and Great Skua, are also little studied and information on population changes is minimal. The latter has declined in some areas but increased in others. Changes in distribution have taken place, although it is unknown if the population has dropped. Little is known about population changes in further three species, which nearly only breed in the Vestmannaeyjar islands, south of Iceland. These are Manx Shearwater, Storm Petrel, and Leach´s Petrel. The rarest seabird species in Iceland are the Long-tailed Skua and the Little Gull. These have bred at least since 2003, and still only a few pairs.
Kittiwakes in South and West Iceland depend on Sandeels, and the population has declined seriously during past twenty years in response to Sandeel deficiency.
Puffin tours, here at Lundey near Reykjavík, and Puffin merchandise have today a higher ecnomic value that that of the Puffin harvest.
Two species of seabirds are known to have bred in earlier years; the Great Auk went extinct in the world in 1844, and the Little Auk has not bred since 1997. Great Auks bred on offshore skerries and were harvested when weather permitted and rowing boats could reach the breeding sites.
Three seabird species have increased during recent decades. Common Gull is a relatively newcomer in Iceland, first found breeding in 1955. Since then the population has increased and distribution expanded. Cormorants declined in the 1980´s but started to increase again after 1995. The decline was possibly due to excessive hunting e.g. at fish farms. Gannets on the other hand have been increasing for a long time, probably bouncing back from earlier persecution. In more recent years, huge increase in Mackerel in Icelandic waters, due to increasing sea temperatures, have benefitted the large seabird species like Gannet and Cormorant.
Eiders hold a special place with Icelanders. The long tradition of down-collecting makes the eider an economically important seabird, with annual export revenues totalling some $6 million dollars (2015). The down is collected from the nests and over three tons of cleaned down is produced per year.
In recent years, another seabird species has equalled, even exceeded, the eider in economic terms. This is the Puffin, an absolute favourite with foreign visitors to the country. Although the economic value to Icelandic society has not been evaluated, Puffins are presented in numerous ways, which tourists are eager to experience. Puffins are marketed live in nature, depicted as toys, found on calendars and books, and many other non-lethal ways.
The Shag population has shown fluctuations in numbers and changes in breeding distribution since this was first censused about 40 years ago. At present this is declining presumably due to poorer feeding conditions.