Scientists study seabird wreck in the North Sea

Large numbers of seabirds are washing up dead on North Sea beaches from Germany to Belgium. The majority of affected birds are guillemots, although some fulmars and kittiwakes have also been recovered.

Where are birds being found?
The majority of birds recovered to date have been found in the Netherlands where an average of 300 birds per day have been recorded. While the numbers from Belgium and Germany are not so dramatic, scientists in both countries note higher than normal

Is this seabird wreck unusual?
Seabird wrecks are not uncommon in this region. Severe winter storms, particularly when they occur in succession, can make foraging for food difficult, if not impossible. Birds already weakened for any other reason, may also drown in heavy seas and be washed ashore.

A seabird wreck in 2014 resulted in birds washing up in France, Spain, the UK, and Ireland but the vast majority, roughly 44,000 of the approximately 60,000 affected birds, were recovered in France. In that wreck puffins were the most heavily affected species, although guillemots also suffered significant losses. Similar wrecks occurred in 1969 and 1983 in the wake of severe storms.

There is some question as to whether the estimated 345 containers lost from the MSC Zoe during an early January storm have had a role in this wreck. The incident occurred between Vlieland, Netherlands and the German Bight making it a possible contributor to the situation.

Dr. Jan Andries Franeker, who was on the island of Schiermonnikoog 14-18 January, tells in his blog post of finding lumps of material similar to palm oil or paraffin. Both of these substances can coat feathers, preventing birds from flying, or impact their digestive systems if ingested. However, it is often difficult, if not impossible to determine whether dead birds washing up coated in such materials were alive when they encountered the contaminants or whether the products coated the bodies as they drifted ashore.

Further investigations in progress
Preliminary post mortem findings showed the birds were emaciated, with severe intestinal problems but the cause of the intestinal problems is not yet known.  The Institute for Terrestrial and Aquatic Wildlife Research (ITAW) at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover in Germany and Niedersächsischen Landesamt für Verbraucherschutz und Lebensmittelsicherheit (the veterinary agency for Lower Saxony) are conducting further testing and, in the Netherlands, a more comprehensive series of post mortems will take place in the coming days.

Until these studies are completed it is not possible to determine whether the MSC Zoe’s containers played a role in this wreck. However, it is likely severe weather was a factor, as the conditions were similar to those that preceded earlier wrecks.

Other Resources:
BBC News. 6.2.2019. Dutch mystery of '20,000 seabird deaths’ on coast.

The Guardian. Netherlands puzzles over death of estimated 20,000 guillemots. 6.2.19.

ABC (Australia) News. updated 7.2.19. Researchers scramble for answers after deaths of up to 20,000 guillemots off Dutch coast.

Wageningen University and Research. Wadden Sea island Schiermonnikoog two weeks after the container incident with MSC Zoe. 4.2.19.

Photo Credit: Jim Roberts Gallery.