About the project

Plastic waste in seabirds’ nests: Systematic analysis of its provenance and effects on breeding populations in the German Bight

1. Background

The share of anthropogenic marine waste, i.e. marine waste caused by humans, has significantly augmented during the last decades. Meanwhile, rubbish dumps can be found in all the oceans, on the sea surface as well as on coastal stretches and on the seabed. The total amount of plastic waste in marine ecosystems approximately ranges from 65 to 150 million tons, representing about 95 % of the entire quantity of anthropogenic marine waste. It may be assumed that, with the production of plastics still rising, the insertion of plastic waste into the oceans will be augmenting continually, too. Meanwhile, every year, 4.8 to 12.7 million tons of plastic waste end up in the seas, which may lead to grave consequences for marine ecosystems and the animal species living on them. Larger parts of plastics, as e. g. ropes or remains of packages or fishing nets, often have a deadly impact on marine creatures like mammals, fishes or birds, which entangle themselves in the residues and thereby perish. The consequences of the entanglement into plastic waste on the population level very frequently are underrated. Animals entangled into plastics often perish on the high seas, and only a minority of these individuals are washed ashore. All in all, the effects on single individuals are sufficiently well documented, but assessments in regard to the population level are lacking to the greatest possible extent.

2. 2015 pilot project

Partly on the basis of the stated background information, and in cooperation of GEO, Greenpeace, Verein Jordsand e. V. and the Institute of Avian Research "Vogelwarte Helgoland", seven nests have been removed from the Helgoland cliffs, and the artificial nesting material has been segregated from the natural material in the scope of this project. In the mentioned nests, approximately 10 kg of plastics have been found. This material now is being stored and can be used for further research.
Further information on the 2015 project can be found here.

3. PhD thesis started in 2019

Due to the high public awareness as well as against the background of the grave situation and in relation to the 2015 project, this four-year research work shall examine into the provenance of macro plastics and its effects on seabirds in the German Bight (North Sea). Large seabirds, like gannets or petrels and shearwaters, are sensitive to changes in the mortality rate of adult individuals. This sensitivity is largely determined by the birds’ reproduction strategies. Because of low reproduction rates in combination with a high life expectancy, populations can but slowly adapt to changing habitat conditions. Therefore, plastic waste bears a high risk-potential for seabird populations.


The research area for this thesis is the nature reserve Lummenfelsen on the island of Helgoland. The here located colonies are the only breeding places of the pelagic bird species northern gannet (Morus bassanus), common guillemot (Uria aalge), Razorbill (Alca torda), northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) and black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) in Germany. The research focus is on the northern gannet, which actively integrates artificial nesting material into its nests. This is of negative impact on the rate of mortality by entanglement not only of the northern gannets, but also of the other breeding bird species to be found in the nature reserve, because these, too, entangle themselves in the plastic residues and thereby perish.


In detail, this project will be focussing on two points: First, the amount, the period of insertion and the provenance of the plastic waste in the breeding colonies as well as their effects on the population level shall be examined. Second, the plastic parts gathered from the nests will be chemically analysed to gain the means of assigning plastic materials to certain industrial sectors, if possible, and of defining their respective fields of application.


For the time being, four chapters, based on these main topics, have been developed:

With this first-time analysis, we aim at the identification of potential producers of the artificial materials in the nests.

For the first time ever, entanglement data shall be collected all year long to define the extent of the additional mortality caused by plastic waste. The aim is to develop a population model by means of the collected data in combination with the breeding success data and so to become able to rate the entanglement effects on the population as a whole.

The aim is to develop a system applicable to as many species as possible and useful for the easy assessment of the contamination level within a breeding colony on the simple basis of nest photographs.

The aim is to define the period of insertion and the marine provenance of the material for the very first time. By comparison of wash margin recording data from the German coasts with the material in the nests, it shall additionally be verified whether northern gannets are preferring certain materials.

4. Aims of the project

The results of this thesis shall lead to the identification of the polluters responsible for the insertion of plastic waste into the North Sea. Hereby, politics, economy and environmental organisations shall be encouraged to search for alternative materials. This thesis is seeing itself as an essential contribution to the quantification and future minimization of the effects of marine waste on seabirds’ colonies as well as to the reduction of plastic waste insertion into the oceans.