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Plastic Particles in Fulmar Stomachs in the North Sea

D10 - Marine Litter

D10.1 - Characteristics of litter in the marine and coastal environment D10.2 - Impacts of litter on marine life

Currently 58% of beached North Sea fulmars have more than 0.1 g of plastic in their stomachs, exceeding OSPAR’s long-term goal of 10%. This reflects the abundance of floating litter in their environment. There has been no significant change in the amount of plastic in fulmar stomachs over the past ten years.

Area assessed

Printable Summary


Litter is widespread in the marine environment and is harmful to wildlife and the ecosystem. OSPAR aims to substantially reduce the amount marine litter in the OSPAR Maritime Area by 2020 to levels where properties and quantities do not cause harm to the marine environment. The quantity of plastics ingested by marine wildlife mainly reflects the abundance of floating litter in their environment.

OSPAR monitors and assesses plastics in the stomachs of northern fulmars as one of its indicators of environmental quality. Fulmars are abundant and widespread seabirds known to regularly ingest litter, with nearly all individuals having at least some plastic in their stomachs. Although fulmars forage near the water surface, their stomachs may also contain items from deeper water or items that may be indirectly ingested through their prey.

The fulmar Indicator Assessment approach is based on a previous OSPAR Ecological Quality Objective (EcoQO). The monitoring programme uses corpses of beached birds or individuals accidentally killed. OSPAR has a long-term goal of less than 10% of fulmars exceeding a level of 0.1 g of plastic in their stomachs. Research methods and results have been published in reports and peer-reviewed scientific literature as well as specific OSPAR Guidelines. This indicator is currently used only in the Greater North Sea. However it could be suitable for implementation in Arctic Waters and Celtic Seas and has already been used in fulmar studies outside the OSPAR Maritime Area, in the North Atlantic and North Pacific.

Plastics from a fulmar stomach with industrial granules (lower left) and threadlike (top left) and a mix of fragmented, sheet-like and foamed (right) consumer plastics.

Size indicated by the spherical industrial granules, which are of 4 to 5 mm diameter. (Photo by J.A. van Franeker).

The monitoring system for plastics in stomachs of seabirds uses beached northern fulmars. The fulmar in this photograph had beached on Texel, the Netherlands, on 8 January 2009.

(Photo by J.A. van Franeker.)


Many marine organisms, including seabirds, turtles, marine mammals, fish, crustaceans, shellfish and zooplankton ingest man-made debris that they encounter in their environment (Kühn et al., 2015). The quantity of litter ingested and found in animal stomachs or intestines, in particular that of persistent materials such as plastics reflects the abundance of marine litter, the associated harm to wildlife and the marine ecosystem, and socio-economic harm.


Within its system of Common Indicators, OSPAR agreed to the monitoring of plastic abundance in stomachs of seabirds as an indicator for levels and trends in marine litter floating at the surface of the North Sea. The indicator has been implemented through long-term monitoring of plastic abundance in stomach contents of the northern fulmar Fulmarus glacialis which has been developed and applied by OSPAR as an Ecological Quality Objective (EcoQO) for the North Sea (OSPAR, 2009, 2010a,b). The EcoQO approach has been used as the basis of the OSPAR Common Indicator Assessment for the Intermediate Assessment 2017.

The EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive 2008/56/EC (MSFD) refers to indicators related to litter in the water column (including floating at the surface) and to litter ingested by marine animals.


The OSPAR Common Indicator on plastic particles in fulmar stomachs has been presented as a monitoring approach in the MSFD (MSFD Descriptor 10 Indicator 2; EC 2008, 2010; Galgani et al., 2010), which is suitable for implementation in the Greater North Sea, Arctic Waters and Celtic Seas. The methodology for undertaking assessments of ingested plastic has also been used for other biota indicators for marine litter in other MSFD regions where no fulmars occur.

The purpose of monitoring plastic abundance in stomachs of fulmars is:

  • to obtain a quantitative measure for spatial and temporal patterns in the abundance and composition of marine litter, in particular plastics, mainly floating at the surface
  • to provide an indication of ecological harm caused by such litter.

Monitoring methods and results have been published in regular reports and peer-reviewed scientific literature (Van Franeker et al., 2011; Van Franeker and Law 2015). In 2015 OSPAR adopted Guidelines for Monitoring and Assessment of Plastic Particles in Stomachs of Fulmars in the North Sea Area (OSPAR Agreement 2015-03) to guarantee consistent monitoring methods and uniform submission of data by the relevant OSPAR Contracting Parties.

While plastic ingested by the fulmar was selected as an ‘ecological indicator’ for trends in marine litter by OSPAR (EcoQO 3.3; OSPAR, 2009) and as an indicator for ‘impact on biota’ in the MSFD (MSFD Indicator 10.2.1; EC, 2010), the results of fulmar monitoring have a broader additional significance:

  • both size range and location of debris monitored by fulmars is complementary to macro-debris monitored on beaches (MSFD Indicator 10.1.1)
  • fulmar ingestion has a focus on floating marine debris and addresses MSFD Indicator 10.1.2 (trends in litter in the water column)
  • the size range of plastics ingested by fulmars could be used as a functional instrument for monitoring microplastics at the upper end of the their size scale (MSFD Indicator 10.1.3 trends in micro-particles)

Suitability of fulmars for monitoring marine litter

Fulmars are pelagic (open sea) seabirds that belong to the large group of the tubenoses (Procellariiformes) of which the albatrosses are the best known representatives. These birds forage exclusively at sea and never on land, and rarely forage close to shore. The fulmar is a poor diver, and thus feeds on what is available at or within a few metres of the water surface. Like most tubenosed seabirds, fulmars regularly ingest a variety of marine debris, probably mostly taken directly and intentionally because resembling prey, or unintentionally when mixed with attractive food wastes. But indirect ingestion, for example, through preying on fish with ingested plastics or scavenging on guts of other dead animals, will also occur. A preliminary survey suggests that approximately 90% of ingested plastic items (not threads or soft sheets) found in the first glandular stomach of fulmars is 10 mm or less in diameter, and over 50% is 5 mm or less (Bravo Rebolledo, 2011). Thus, litter ingested by fulmars is mostly in the micro (<5 mm) and meso (5–25 mm) size range. Unlike most gulls, fulmars do not normally regurgitate indigestible components of their diet, but gradually grind these in their muscular stomach (gizzard) until particles are worn or broken into sizes small enough to pass into the intestines and be excreted (which appears to happen at particle sizes of approximately 2–3 mm; Bravo Rebolledo, 2011). Fulmar stomach contents integrate litter abundance encountered during feeding over periods of days to weeks (Van Franeker and Law, 2015).

Previous assessment

OSPAR’s Quality Status Report (QSR 2010) included an assessment of the North Sea EcoQO on plastic particles in seabird stomachs. The percentage of fulmars in the Greater North Sea with more than 0.1 g of plastic in the stomach ranged from 45% to over 60%. The English Channel area was the most heavily polluted area while the Scottish Islands were the ‘cleanest’ with a mean mass for plastics in fulmars of about a third of the level encountered in the English Channel. Data from the Faroe Islands (Arctic Waters) were included for comparison. The EcoQO was probably only achieved in Arctic populations. A long monitoring series from the Netherlands showed a significant reduction in plastic abundance from 1997 to 2006, mainly through a reduction in raw industrial plastics.

The Fulmar EcoQO methodology is also being used outside the OSPAR Maritime Area, in the North Atlantic and North Pacific areas (e.g. Provencher et al., 2009; Avery-Gomm et al., 2012; Kühn and Van Franeker, 2012; Bond et al., 2014; Trevail et al., 2015; Herzke et al., 2016) allowing wide spatial comparisons of marine litter distribution.

In the Dutch sector of the North Sea, changes in stomach contents of fulmars have been monitored since the 1980s. This monitoring provides contextual information that is valuable when interpreting OSPAR’s Indicator at the Greater North Sea scale. Although the overall abundance of plastics in the stomachs of fulmars from Dutch beaches has shown unexplained changes over time (Figure a.A), rapid reductions in abundance of industrial plastics within one to two decades (Figure a.B) have shown that fulmar stomach contents rapidly reflect changes in source-specific plastic abundances in their environment (Van Franeker et al., 2011; Van Franeker and Law, 2015), and are thus an effective way to assess the success of policy measures, reflecting the improved environmental quality for marine organisms and the pelagic marine environment.

Figure a.(A) : Plastic mass in stomachs of fulmars recorded in the Netherlands between 1980 and 2014, for all plastics combined.

Data are shown by arithmetic average ± standard error of the mean for mass in running five year averages (i.e. data points shift one year ahead at a time). It should be noted that this is not a formal statistical trend analysis. (source: Van Franeker 2015)

Figure a.( B): Plastic mass in stomachs of fulmars recorded in the Netherlands between 1980 and 2014 for separate consumer plastics (blue circles, left y-axis) and industrial plastic (red triangles, right y-axis).

Data are shown by arithmetic average ± standard error for mass in running five year averages (i.e. data points shift one year ahead at a time). It should be noted that this is not a formal statistical trend analysis. (source: Van Franeker 2015)

At this point in time, OSPAR IA 2017 indicator assessment values are not necessarily to be considered as equivalent to proposed EU MSFD criteria threshold values, but can be used for the purposes of their MSFD obligations by those Contracting Parties that wish to do so.

Full details of methods are provided in the OSPAR Guidelines for Monitoring and Assessment of Plastic Particles in Stomachs of Fulmars in the North Sea Area (OSPAR Agreement 2014-03) and are repeated here only in a descriptive summary.

Corpses of dead beached birds or accidentally killed specimens are mostly collected by volunteer networks, but processed at experienced laboratories. At dissection, in addition to the date, the finding location is specified by a system of area codes and geographical coordinates for the area or more detailed location. Based on several internal and external anatomical characteristics, birds are classified as either adult or non-adult age group. The pilot study for fulmar monitoring (Van Franeker and Meijboom, 2002) showed that age is a relevant variable because younger birds generally have more plastics in the stomach than adults. Thus, in cases where samples to be compared have strongly different age compositions, analyses may need to be specified for separate age groups. Because age characteristics are gender specific, data recording includes sex, although there is currently no evidence for a relevant influence of gender on plastic abundance in stomachs.

Stomach contents are carefully rinsed in a sieve with a 1 mm mesh and then transferred to a petri dish for sorting under a binocular microscope. This size of mesh is used because smaller meshes become easily clogged with mucus from the stomach wall and with food remains. Analyses using smaller meshes were found to be extremely time consuming and particles smaller than 1 mm are very rare in the stomachs (Bravo Rebolledo, 2011) and thus contribute very little to numerical abundance of particles and even less to plastic mass.

Two types of plastic categories are distinguished in the OSPAR Common Indicator. Industrial plastic pellets are separated from consumer debris such as sheets, foams, threadlike materials, and hard fragments. For each of these categories the number of particles and mass (in grams and to the fourth decimal place) is recorded. The final assessment is based only on the total weight of plastics in stomachs, but industrial and consumer waste plastics have different sources and as such provide very useful information for interpreting the monitoring data.

Data collected in this way make it possible to determine:

  • frequency of occurrence (’incidence’, the proportion of birds having plastic in the stomach)
  • arithmetic average and standard error of the mean for number or mass of plastic
  • geometric means (from transformed data to reduce impacts of data outliers)
  • the indicator performance (i.e. the percentage of birds exceeding the threshold level of 0.1 g of ingested plastic as defined in the OSPAR long term goal)

The reference level for the presence of plastics in stomachs of northern fulmars (or any marine organism) is zero, because synthetic materials are solely man-made, and were only introduced into the marine environment in about the mid-1900s.

However, accepting that incidental losses are unavoidable, OSPAR (2008, 2009) has defined an (undated)long-term goalfor the fulmar indicator in the North Sea as:

“There should be less than 10% of northern fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) having more than 0.1 g plastic particles in the stomach in samples of 50 to 100 beach-washed fulmars from each of 4 to 5 areas of the North Sea over a period of at least five years”.

Therefore the basic monitoring information required is the total mass of plastic in individual stomachs, and the percentage of stomachs exceeding the 0.1g threshold level (referred to as ‘Indicator performance’).

The OSPAR Assessment for abundance of plastics in stomachs of northern fulmars is therefore calculated as the percentage of investigated birds exceeding the 0.1 g threshold level of plastics in the stomach over the most recent five-year period of available data.

In this assessment, the most recent five-year period is 2010–2014. It is important to emphasise that all data concerning average ingested debris or indicator performance are so called ‘population averages’, meaning that clean birds without any plastic in the stomachs are included in all calculations. Analyses in the pilot study by Van Franeker and Meijboom (2002) suggest that about 40 stomachs is the minimum sample size to obtain a reliable figure for plastic ingestion representative of a selected area and period of time. This recommendation should be taken into account when spatial aggregations of data are being made.

For the fulmar indicator, OSPAR has sub-divided the Greater North Sea into five sub-regions (Figure 3): Scottish Islands (Orkney and Shetland), East England (includes incidental data for eastern Scotland), English Channel, South-eastern North Sea (Belgium, Netherlands, Germany), and Skagerrak (Denmark, Norway, Sweden). Significant spatial differences occurred, with highest level of pollution in the English Channel area, gradually decreasing to more northern regions within the North Sea and beyond (Van Franeker et al., 2011; Van Franeker and Law, 2015). In some regions, such as the Swedish Kattegat, there are insufficient numbers of beach washed birds to undertake monitoring.

OSPAR has set the same long-term goal for all these North Sea areas, however the timeline for reaching this long-term goal is not specified, but is certainly relevant for policies under the EU MSFD in Descriptor 10 Indicator 2. Good Environmental Status (GES) must be achieved by 2020 (Commission Decision, 2010). However OSPAR has not yet identified regional or overall targets to be achieved by 2020. Power analyses of Dutch data in the pilot study by Van Franeker and Meijboom (2002) indicate that fulmar monitoring data may be expected to detect statistically significant trends (p<0.05) over periods of at least 4–8 years depending on the type of plastics considered: indeed, periods of significant change have been observed in early monitoring years for both consumer plastics and industrial plastics, especially the latter (Van Franeker et al., 2011; Van Franeker and Law, 2015). Trends in quantities of plastics ingested can be shown using either annual updates of the five-year running average in the mass of ingested plastic or for the indicator performance. In such graphs, each data point thus overlaps with four years of data from the previous data point. This ‘smoothes’ most ad hoc variability in the data and emphasises longer-term trends. However, these are only visual representations of the data and have no statistical meaning. As agreed by OSPAR and published in the scientific peer-reviewed literature, the method to statistically evaluate trends in plastic ingestion, use linear regression analysis of log transformed mass of plastics in individual birds against the year of sampling over a period of the most recent ten years.

For evaluating regional differences, plastic data were fitted in a negative binomial generalised linear model with region included as a factor, and the test statistic is a t-score based on residual variance for the region (Van Franeker et al., 2011). Data for the current analyses were stored in Oracle. Graphs were made up in Microsoft Excel and statistical analyses for time trends or regional differences were conducted in Genstat (18th Edition).


Assessment 2010-2014:

Over the five-year period 2010–2014 inclusive, OSPAR’s long-term goal in terms of plastic litter ingestion by seabirds was not achieved anywhere in the North Sea. Among all 525 fulmar stomachs analysed over this period, 58% contained more than 0.1 g of plastic, whereas OSPAR’s long-term goal is to reduce this to less than 10%. Of all birds analysed, 93% had some ingested plastic, and average values per bird were 33 particles and 0.31 g. Fulmars from the English Channel had the highest plastics load, slightly lower levels being observed further north. Over the last five-year period no significant increases or decreases in ingested plastic mass were observed in the North Sea as a whole or in any of the five sub-regions. Figure 1 shows the sub-regional differences for the North Sea in relation the percentage of birds that have ingested more than 0.1 g. (This assessment uses the previous boundary between the North Sea and Celtic Seas, however this will be updated in the next assessment) Only in the far North-western Atlantic (the Canadian Arctic) do plastic ingestion levels approach the OSPAR long-term goal.


Trends 2005-2014

Trends are evaluated against the year of collection over the most recent ten-year period, in this assessment 2005–2014, inclusive. The current assessment for the five sub-regions (Figure 1) confirms that sub-regional levels have remained largely stable since the start of the data collection (Figure 2), with fairly constant sub-regional differences and levels clearly elevated relative to those observed in incidental studies further to the north in the OSPAR Maritime Area.


Figure 1. Proportions of fulmars having more than 0.1g plastic in the stomach in different monitoring regions of the North Sea over the period 2010 to 2014.

This assessment uses the previous boundary between the North Sea and Celtic Seas, however this will be updated in the next assessment.

Figure 2. Running five-year averages for the percentage of fulmars having more than 0.1 g of plastic in the stomach since 2000 and/or the start of sub-regional participation in the monitoring programme.

Incidental data published for the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Svalbard are included to illustrate lower levels further north in the OSPAR Maritime Area, but nevertheless still well above the OSPAR long-term goal.

There is high confidence in both the methodology and data availability.

Levels of ingested plastics in fulmar stomachs within the North Sea decrease from south (English Channel sub-region) to north. Levels of ingested plastics are lower further north towards the Faroe Islands, then north-western Iceland and finally north-east to North Norway and Svalbard (Figure b and Table a).


Table a: Plastic ingestion by fulmars in the Greater North Sea in the assessment period 2010-2014.

Table b. Linear regression analyses for time trends between 2005 and 2014 in plastic abundance in stomachs of fulmars in sub-regions assessed and in the total North Sea.

Analysis by linear regression, fitting ln-transformed litter mass values for individual birds on the year of collection. By standard, analyses are conducted over the most recent 10 years of data. The regression line is described by y = constant + slope*x in which y is the calculated value of the regression-line for year x. Negative values for slope and t-value indicate plastics decrease, but a trend is considered significant when the probability (p) of misjudgement of data is less than 5% (p<0.05).

Figure b: Proportions of fulmars having more than 0.1 g plastic in the stomach (EcoQO performance) in different sub-regions of the North Sea (light blue bars) over the period between 2010 and 2014.

Details shown in Table a, The overall value for the North Sea (dark blue bar) is compared to more incidental data (white bars) published for OSPAR areas to the north of the North Sea : Faroe Islands (Van Franeker & the SNS Fulmar Study Group 2013) , Iceland (Kühn & van Franeker 2012) , North Norway (Herzke et al. 2016) and Svalbard (Trevail et al. 2015) Please note that this graph is just a visual aid, and not a statistical analysis.

No significant increases or decreases in ingested plastic mass were observed in the North Sea as a whole or in any of the five sub-regions for the period considered in this assessment (2005–2014) (Figure 4, Table b). However, trends have been documented with longer datasets. In the Netherlands, plastic ingestion by fulmars increased from the 1980s to peak in the mid-1990s, this was followed by a decrease back to earlier levels (Figure a) and stability in the 2000s up to the current assessment.

Underlying this overall trend were patterns that strongly differed for industrial plastic pellets and for consumer plastics.

The rapid decrease in industrial plastic granules in the North Sea has not continued into the 2000s. No major changes have been observed in any of the North Sea sub-regions. Except for a near significant decrease along the Eastern English coast, changes in sub-regions have been statistically non-significant. Overall, 58% of fulmars currently have industrial plastics in their stomach, see table c, with an average of 3.1 pellets, equivalent to a mass of 0.07 g, per bird (based on a total of 525 birds), which is less than half the amount measured in the 1980s. This assessment shows consumer plastic debris in fulmar stomachs has been more or less stable since the early 2000s. Overall 93% of fulmar stomachs contain some consumer plastic, with an average of approximately 30 particles (0.24 g) per stomach. Figure c illustrates using five-year running averages, with sub-regional data for the 2010–2014 assessment shown in Table c. The results of the statistical analysis is shown in Table d, and illustrated for the total North Sea in Figure d.

Figure c. Plastic mass in stomachs of fulmars in the North Sea (all five sub-regions combined) since the year 2000, for separate consumer plastics (blue circles, left y-axis) and industrial plastic (red triangles, right y-axis), se = standard error.

Table c. Details of plastic ingestion for industrial and consumer categories by fulmars in the Greater North Sea in the assessment period 2010-2014.

Figure d. Trends in plastic mass in stomachs of fulmars in the North Sea over the most recent ten year period.

Graphs show ln (natural log) transformed mass data for industrial plastic and consumer plastic in stomachs of individual fulmars, plotted against year, and linear trendlines for industrial (lower, red line), consumer (middle blue line) and total plastics (top black line). Trendlines are dashed because none of the regressions was significant (n.s.) For a more simple expression of changes over time, see Figure a.B with five-year running averages of mass for the two main categories of plastic.

Table d. Linear regression analyses for time related trends between 2005 and 2014 in industrial and consumer plastic abundance in stomachs of fulmars in the EcoQO sub-regions and in the total North Sea.


There is high confidence in the fulmar method. This is based on a suite of peer-reviewed international publications on this method and its results, and on the long history of this indicator.

There is high confidence in data availability owing to the relatively long time series available and many data points per North Sea monitoring region. In the English Channel (one of the five subareas in the North Sea) data availability has become too low in recent years. However, for the overall assessment of the North Sea (using the EcoQO assessment value and trend analysis, respectively) this is not a problem, because the total number of data points for the full period (five years for the EcoQO assessment value and ten years for trend analysis) is still high.


Since the early 2000s, levels of plastic ingestion by fulmars in the North Sea appear to have stabilised at around 60% of individuals exceeding the 0.1 g level of plastic ingestion specified in the OSPAR long-term goal definition. When considering the growth in marine activity and the increasing proportion of plastics in wastes, the observed stability in the indicator could be viewed positively. Even though the OSPAR long-term goal is still distant, it remains valid as a global assessment level.

Fulmar populations in the North Sea are currently in decline, as highlighted in the Marine Bird Abundance indicator assessment, but the causes of the decline are not well understood. Ingestion of plastic litter is recognised as a potential threat contributing to the status of fulmar populations, given that it is probable that sub-lethal effects of reduced body condition and health, affect a significant proportion of individuals in the population.

The OSPAR Regional Action Plan identifies actions to reduce marine litter and their implementation should lead to a reduction in the amount of litter ingested by fulmars.

Responsiveness of the indicator

The average fulmar in the North Sea has around 30 plastic particles with a combined mass of about 0.3 g in the stomach. Fewer than one in ten fulmars has no plastic in the stomach at the time of death. About 20% of plastic mass is industrial plastic pellets, the remainder being consumer plastic waste. In the early 1980s that ratio was about fifty-fifty, which implies plastic composition has undergone a substantial change in the past few decades, even if total plastic mass in stomachs is currently similar to that in the 1980s. The early rapid changes in the mass of ingested plastic in different subcategories are important to emphasise, because this provides evidence that effective measures to reduce inputs of plastics to the marine environment have a rapid effect, not only near the source as evidenced by fulmars in the North Sea, but by implication also in the main oceanic gyres (Van Franeker and Law, 2015).

Losses of industrial plastic pellets to the marine environment were significantly reduced over a period of one to two decades, but this reduction was counteracted by increased inputs of consumer plastic waste. These important and rapid changes cannot be documented for the other sub-regions of the North Sea because data collection on plastics in fulmar stomachs only started after the period in which major changes occurred in the Dutch sector of the North Sea. However, the early Dutch data have been supported by very similar results in other seabird studies around the world (see Van Franeker and Law, 2015). The rapid reduction in industrial plastic granules was not only seen in source areas such as the North Sea, but was followed by similar reductions in densities of industrial plastic granules in the large oceanic gyres. Rapid reductions were probably achieved because the industrial pellets are raw feedstock with economic value. Considerable publicity in the 1970s and 1980s on losses of industrial pellets to the marine environment (Colton et al., 1974; Wong et al., 1974; Gregory, 1978; Shiber, 1979, 1982; Morris, 1980) and their ingestion by a wide range of marine wildlife (e.g. Bourne and Imber, 1982; Connors and Smith, 1982; Day et al., 1985) led to measures reducing losses around factories, processing plants and during transport. Although no published information on specific measures by industry or transport sectors is known from the 1980s, industrial concern was flagged in 1991 by the dedicated Operation Clean Sweep campaign (US EPA, 1993). Because of these early changes, it is important to continue to make a distinction in monitoring of industrial as opposed to consumer plastics, as they have provided evidence that rapid improvements in environmental quality are a realistic possibility if input of plastic debris is effectively reduced.

Validity of the OSPAR long term goal

The OSPAR long-term goal of no more than 10% of fulmars exceeding the 0.1 g threshold of plastic could be seen as a global background level because this level currently does exist in relatively clean Arctic marine environments such as the Canadian Arctic (Van Franeker et al., 2011; Kühn and Van Franeker, 2012, compiled from Mallory et al., 2006, Mallory, 2008 and Provencher et al., 2009 with additional information from the authors).

Harm to biota

The 0.1 g threshold in combination with a percentage of fulmars not allowed to exceed the threshold is not based on a quantitative assessment of harm to fulmars. Individual fulmars and other wildlife can die and suffer severely from the ingestion of plastic, but such effects are hard to quantify in terms of reductions in populations or species. Sub-lethal effects on many individuals may have population effects, even if they are difficult to quantify. Further research to document such sub-lethal effects is therefore warranted.

Descriptor 10 of the EU MSFD states that levels of marine litter should not cause harm to the marine and coastal environment. Harm to wildlife is a very complex concept, which in spite of dedicated research (Browne et al., 2015; Rochman et al., 2016) cannot be clearly defined. It can be interpreted that suffering or death of individual animals constitutes harm, while another interpretation is that ‘large numbers’ of individuals must suffer or die to constitute harm, or even that populations must be in serious decline before they can be said to be harmed, including firm evidence that it is specifically marine litter that is responsible for the decline.

Indicator species under the MSFD should not be in decline before the indicator highlights harm. Species are selected as indicators owing to their abundance, which usually means they are also not considered under threat species. Other more vulnerable and/or threatened species (i.e. those on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species) may become at risk of extinction due to marine litter even in a situation in which the indicator species such as northern fulmar is still abundant.

However, it is useful to note that despite two centuries of growth fulmar populations across Europe are currently stable or declining (Figure e). The OSPAR common indicator on marine bird abundance highlights that in the Greater North Sea and Celtic Seas, the relative annual fulmar population for 2015 is less than 80% of that in the baseline year (1992) and has strongly decreased (by more than 5%) in the last year. In Europe, the fulmar population is estimated to have declined by more than 40% since about the mid-1980s, and has been red-listed by BirdLife International as ‘Endangered’ based on standard IUCN Criteria. Within the EU, the fulmar population has the status ‘Threatened’. In most other, more distant areas, population trends are poorly known (Birdlife International, 2015). Conservation actions proposed in the BirdLife population assessment include: identification and protection of important sites at sea, as well as for prey species; continued monitoring of marine litter ingestion; and increased efforts for the removal of plastic from oceans (Birdlife International, 2015). Although firm evidence for the cause(s) of decline is impossible to obtain, ingestion of plastic debris is considered an ongoing threat to the fulmar population that needs to be addressed. In this respect, it is important to consider that the fulmar is a single indicator species and that to fully understand the impacts of plastic debris on the marine ecosystem further development of other indicator species is recommended.

Figure e: Northern Fulmar population trends in the OSPAR area. Source: BirdLife International (2015). European Red List of Birds. Office for Official Publications of the European Communities. Luxembourg. downloaded 26-Feb-2016. fulmar details:



Globally, it has been estimated that 80% of marine plastic debris originates from land (Faris and Hart, 1994). However, although huge masses of plastics are estimated to enter the sea from land-based sources (Jambeck et al., 2015) similar estimates for sea-based litter are lacking. In the North Sea, at least for macro-debris on beaches, sea-based activities (shipping, fisheries, aquaculture, offshore industry) are thought to be a major source (van Franeker, 2005; Fleet et al., 2009). Sources of smaller marine plastic debris in the North Sea are less clear. All (collective) measures in the OSPAR Regional Action Plan are expected to contribute to a reduction in floating litter and thus to a reduction in smaller debris ingested by fulmars.

Knowledge Gaps

The OSPAR Common Indicator on Plastic Particles in Fulmar Stomachs aims to reflect litter floating at the surface, and the potential harm from marine litter in the North Sea environment to pelagic (open sea) marine organisms. However, the fulmar monitoring effort does not give direct information on ‘harm’ or ‘damage’ but simply quantifies spatial and temporal patterns in abundance of plastics in fulmar stomachs as an indirect measure of harm. Dedicated experimental laboratory-based research into evidence of harm to fulmars from specified levels and types of plastics, as a specific example of harm, is urgently needed to strengthen the role of this OSPAR Common Indicator.

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