“You could barely hear anything except Arctic terns before, but now you barely hear them at all,” says Magnus Jonsson, a farmer on Flatey Island off northwest Iceland about the local tern population in crisis.
AEvar Petersen, a bird expert with the Natural History Institute of Iceland, has just returned from his yearly research trip to Flatey and can confirm the anecdote. “The last three years have been really bad, one could say that there are no more than about half the nests that there used to be a few years ago,” he said to Visir.is
Petersen says the reason for the steep decline is unknown, but that most indicators point to a shortage of sand eels, as other birds primarily dependent on the small eels have also seen severe reduction in numbers. As well as the Arctic tern, the kittiwake, puffin and shag are also badly affected. “There are many shag nesting sites with barely a quarter of the young families there were not so long ago,” Petersen said. “The cormorant has been on the upswing though; but it lives on different food,” he added.
He said that this bad situation is not restricted to seabirds in Iceland. “This is something that seems to be going on all over the North Atlantic. From Greenland down to the Faroe Islands and the British Isles and also east to Norway and everywhere in between.”
Petersen represents Iceland in the Arctic Council Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Committee, whose research is bringing this development to light. “Hopefully we’ll be able to gain more understanding of what’s going on and then figure out what we can do about it,” he said. Iceland is joined in the committee by representatives from Norway, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and the UK and the group’s first meeting will take place in Norway this September.
Farmer Magnus Jonsson told Visir.is that it is quite a change to hear so little from the terns which are usually everywhere over Flatey every summer. “Tourists visiting the island are increasing steadily, maybe there’ll end up being more of them than terns,” he said with a chuckle.