Posted by: The ocean update | January 8, 2016

Agony of seabirds strangled by plastic on British island : Disturbing photos of gannets trapped in rubbish thrown from ships (UK)

Choking : The plastic 'noose' tightens around a terrified bird's throat as it struggles to escape - until it is rescued unharmed by Greg Morgan

Choking : The plastic ‘noose’ tightens around a terrified bird’s throat as it struggles to escape – until it is rescued unharmed by Greg Morgan

January 8th, 2016. With no natural predators — and no human beings to worry about — Grassholm should be a paradise for Britain’s greatest seabird, the gannet.

After all, this bleak slab of rock eight miles off Pembrokeshire is run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) as a sanctuary. Instead, for many of these spectacular creatures, it has become a graveyard as they are trapped or strangled by tons of discarded plastic chucked into the North Atlantic.

And now a rescue mission has captured the extent of the problem with this powerful but disturbing set of photographs. They show how old nets, waste and packaging thrown overboard by fishing boats and cargo ships is carried ashore by the gannets. They mistake the rubbish for seaweed and use it to line their nests — with disastrous and tragic results.

Birds have even torn off their own feet just to escape from the tangle. The RSPB estimates there is 18 tons of plastic detritus on Grassholm.

The gannet is an extraordinary bird. With a 6ft wingspan, it weighs around 7lb and can fly more than 150 miles on a single feeding mission, dive-bombing the ocean at up to 60mph in search of mackerel and herring.

Around 36,000 pairs come to Grassholm each spring to lay a single egg and hatch a chick. It’s a team effort. Most birds stay with the same mate for life — up to 35 years — and both parents feed their young for the 90 days it takes before a fledgling can leave the nest.

As winter approaches, the birds fly to Africa and Portugal and return to Wales in spring to rebuild their nests using whatever is floating on the sea. Historically, that would have been seaweed. Now, the gannets increasingly pick up bits of nylon net, fishing line and plastic packaging.

‘The gannets see plastic objects and mistake them for seaweed,’ says wildlife photographer Sam Hobson. ‘It becomes a mess of knots. It’s worse for the young birds in the nest. They get tangled as they grow and can’t escape.’

The pollution has become so worrying that a team from the RSPB and the conservation charity Wildscreen has started visiting each autumn after the great exodus. The rescuers attempt to save as many birds as they can, and put those too badly injured to fly out of their misery.

‘One of the more horrible things we saw was a nest with just a foot left behind trapped in plastic,’ says Mr Hobson. ‘The bird had ripped off its own leg trying to get away.’

The RSPB typically saves the lives of 50 birds each year. Greg Morgan, the RSPB’s warden of Grassholm and neighbouring Ramsey Island, says: ‘Some are too badly injured to help and some have died. People ask why we don’t clear the rubbish. But you’d have to wipe out the nests and start again, which would cause major disruption to the birds.

‘It is very frustrating. We do what we can, but it is fire-fighting. It is not going to solve the problem. They only way to do that is to raise awareness and to stop the plastic ending up in the sea in the first place.’

Trapped : A fledgling is unable to free its feet from the tangled mess.

Trapped : A fledgling is unable to free its feet from the tangled mess.

map-Grassholm

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