Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis

Status;  International importance;  Population estimates;  Distribution;  Annual abundance/ productivity; Phenology/diet/survival

 

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Description

Northern Fulmar Vignette

The following has been adapted from original text by Mark L. Tasker in Seabird Populations of Britain and Ireland (with permission from A&C Black, London).

 

Northern fulmars are one of the commonest seabirds in northern Britain and are present year-round, with no pronounced migration after becoming adult. They usually nest on wide ledges near the top of cliffs, but will also nest on more gently sloping land, under boulders and in puffin burrows on islands free from mammalian predators. They feed at sea on a variety of foods ranging from zooplankton and small fish to offal and discards produced by commercial fishing. Consequently, they are ubiquitous companions of fishing vessels in northern waters.

 

An increase in food discarded by commercial fishing has been suggested as a contributing factor to the spectacular growth in numbers and distribution of northern fulmars in Britain and Ireland and the North Atlantic. Prior to the mid-18th century, they bred in only one or two colonies in Iceland and in St Kilda (Western Isles). They then expanded their breeding range around the coast of Iceland and onto the Faeroe Islands and in 1878, formed a second British colony on Foula (Shetland). Subsequently, they have spread around Britain and Ireland and NW Europe and across the Atlantic to Canada. Throughout most of the 20th century numbers rapidly increased but during the last 15 years of the century this rise ceased with declines recorded in some areas.

 

The environmental change which is most likely to have affected northern fulmars since the 1970s has come from a decline in the North Sea whitefish industry and a corresponding decline in the amount of offal discharged from its fleets - a trend which is likely to continue. Declines in the abundance of natural prey such as sandeels in the North Sea and of certain species of zooplankton in the North Atlantic, are also likely to have had a detrimental effect on the population. Climate change is likely to have contributed to these declines. Large numbers of northern fulmars may also still be caught and killed accidentally by the long-lining fleets in the Norwegian Sea and in the North Atlantic.

 


Conservation status

 

Northern fulmar is currently identified as a conservation priority in the following:

EC Birds Directive - migratory species

Amber listed in Birds of Conservation Concern 4 (2015 update)

(further information on Conservation Designations for UK Taxa)

Not listed in Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland 2014-2019 (2014 update)

 


International importance

 

UK Population % Biogeographic Population % World Population
501,600 AOS* 14.8 (ssp. glacialis) 8.0

 

* AOS = Apparently Occupied Sites

The UK population figure (rounded to the nearest hundred) was derived from data in Mitchell, P.I., Newton, S.F., Ratcliffe, N. and Dunn, T.E. (eds.) 2004. Seabird Populations of Britain and Ireland. Poyser, London. This was also the source of figures for the Biogeographic and World populations.

 


UK population estimates and change 1969-2002 (census data)

 

There was almost total survey coverage during Seabird 2000 with only a few gaps, notably Sula Sgeir (Western Isles). This was an improvement on both previous censuses, especially on Operation Seafarer (1969-70) when some large sections of coastline were covered rapidly or late in the breeding season.

 

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998-2002)

UK Population estimate (AOS*) 291,294 516,939 501,609
% change since previous census    N/a +77 -3

 

* AOS = Apparently Occupied Sites

For census results for individual countries and Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man see under relevant sections below.


Distribution/abundance

 

The Seabird 2000 census provides the most comprehensive recent assessment of the distribution and abundance of breeding seabirds. Numbers of northern fulmar found in different regions, and a map showing the location and size of colonies, is provided in the Seabird 2000 northern fulmar results page (PDF, 2.1 mb).

 

An interactive map is available on the NBN Gateway, where you can filter to display only the Seabird 2000 data.  For more recent, but less comprehensive, coverage view the distribution on the NBN with all available contributing datasets.

 

The locations sampled during the annual Seabird Monitoring Programme provide some information on distribution and are accessible via the Seabird Monitoring Programme online database.


Annual abundance and productivity by geographical area

 

With reference to the regional accounts below please note the following.

Breeding abundance: graphs of abundance index with 95% CLs are only shown for a region where the trend produced has been deemed accurate (see methods of analysis). Where a trend was thought to be inaccurate, graphs of abundance at major colonies in a region may be shown instead, particularly if such colonies hold greater than 10% of the regional population, are monitored frequently and may thus help illustrate regional population fluctuations outwith national censuses. Occasionally, too few data have been collected regionally to produce either of these.

Productivity: graphs of productivity are only shown if analysis of breeding success data produced a significant result for regional and/or year effects (again see methods of analysis). If results were not significant, then a regional mean productivity value is given. However, on some occasions, too few data are available from which to provide a meaningful average. Furthermore, for 11 species where the quality of monitoring data available was considered high, population viability analysis was undertaken at the UK level and the results of this are also reported.   

 



 

Breeding Abundance

 

UK fulmar abundance trend

Figure 1: Trend in UK abundance index (solid line) of northern fulmar 1986-2015 with 95% confidence limits (dotted lines). Based on SMP data; view the methods of analysis (PDF 158 kb).

 

Census results indicate a large increase between 1969-70 (291,000 pairs) and 1985-88 (517,000 pairs), with numbers then stable between up to 1998-2002. The causes of long-term increase in the UK northern fulmar population is the subject of debate; some suggest an increase in food supplied by man1 - ormerly by waste from whaling fleets and later from offal from trawling - while others suggest oceanographic changes2, or even a genetic change in the population3. Indeed, recent declines in the abundance index may be due to declines in offal from trawlers, representing a ‘re-adjustment’ to more natural levels following a period of artificially elevated population size. Data collected by the SMP suggest the abundance of fulmars breeding in the UK reached a peak in 1996 (Figure 1) but appears to have been declining since then although there is some fluctuation around the turn of the century. The index for 2015 is the lowest value recorded since the index began in 1986.

Table 1 below shows how numbers have changed at some of the most important UK colonies (those in the SPA network) in the period since they were surveyed for Seabird 2000. Numbers have fallen in all areas although the greatest declines appear to be at colonies in the north and west of the UK.

 

Area SPA Name Seabird 2000 Count (Year) Change (%) % per annum
Shetland Hermaness NNR 13,958 1999 6,723 2011 -52 -5.9
Shetland Noss 4,999 1998 5,248 2011 +5 +0.4
Shetland Foula 21,106 2000 19,758 2007 -6 -0.9
Shetland Fair Isle 20,424 2000 29,649 2011 +45 +3.4
Orkney West Westray Cliffs 4,027 1999 677 2007 -83 -20.0
Orkney Copinsay 2,054 1999 1,685 2015 -18 -1.2
Orkney Hoy 31,596 1999 19,586 2007 -38 -5.8
East Coast Troup, Pennan and Lion's Heads 2,900 2001 1,795 2007 -38 -7.7
East Coast Buchan Ness to Collieston Coast 1,976 2001 1,367 2007 -31 -6.0
East Coast Fowlsheugh 352 1999 164 2015 -53 -4.7
East Coast Firth of Forth Islands 809 2001 605 2015 -25 -2.2
West Coast North Rona 3,520 1998 1,438 2012 -59 -6.2
West Coast Handa 3,550 2000 1,870 2012 -47 -5.2
West Coast Flannan Isles 8,143 1998 2,263 2013 -72 -8.2
West Coast Mingulay and Berneray 10,020 1998 8,614 2014 -14 -0.9
West Coast Rathlin Island 2,032 1999 1,518 2011 -25 -2.4

Table 1: Recent counts of the number of northern fulmar (AOS) recorded in SPAs in the UK compared to the number recorded in them during Seabird 2000. The percentage that each colony has changed by, and the per annum change, is also provided. (Note: data for Hermaness and North Rona relate to only part of the respective SPAs).

 

Northern fulmars are caught accidentally by long-line fishing in the Norwegian Sea, though its impact has not yet been assessed. Reductions in sandeel abundance and changes to plankton communities, probably caused by increases in sea surface temperature, are also likely to be responsible for recent fulmar declines.

 

Productivity

 

SMP fulmar Productivity trend

Figure 2: Trend in UK breeding productivity (no. of chicks fledged per pair) of northern fulmar 1986-2015. Based on SMP data; view the methods of analysis (PDF 158 kb).

 

Declines in productivity since the mid 1990s may have contributed to the observed population decline in abundance shown in Figure 1, although in a long-lived species that does not breed until it is nine years old, we would expect a greater lag-time for changes in breeding output to be reflected in population size. Indeed, because of this we may expect further declines in the population. Productivity appears to have declined since 1986 and was at its lowest in 2004, 2007 and 2008 although the exact reasons as to why are unknown. From 2009 onwards, northern fulmars have had more variable breeding seasons.

 

Analysis of the SMP dataset found that mean breeding success of northern fulmars was 0.39 between 1986 and 2008, declining at a rate of 0.005 chicks per nest per year4. This equates to a decline in breeding success of 11% over the study period. The quality of the dataset meant a change in breeding success greater than 10% over 25 years would be detected with confidence. Using available life history information (population size, clutch size, age at first breeding and survival rates of different age classes) to parameterise population viability analysis, it was predicted that if this level of breeding success (0.39) were maintained,  northern fulmar abundance would decline by about 12% over 25 years.

 

 

Population estimates and change 1969-2002 (census data)

 

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998-2002)

Population estimate (AOS*) 285,067 504,640 485,852
% change since previous census    N/a +77 -4

 

* AOS = Apparently Occupied Sites

 

Breeding Abundance

 

Scotland fulmar abundance trend

Figure 1: Trend in abundance index (solid line) of northern fulmar in Scotland, 1986-2015 with 95% confidence limits (dotted lines; drawing of upper limit restricted to preserve detail in the abundance index). Based on SMP data; view the methods of analysis (PDF 158 kb).

 

Scotland holds the majority of the UK population of northern fulmars (about 97%) so it is unsurprising that the trend shown above matches closely the UK trend with the key feature being the protracted shallow decline evident since the mid to late 1990s. Longer term census results indicate a large increase between 1969-70 and 1985-88, which apparently continued beyond the SCR, although numbers had declined by the time of the Seabird 2000 census in 1998-2002. The causes of increase and decrease, and current pressures affecting the Scottish population, are the same as those referred to in the UK section.

 

Productivity

 

Fulmar England productivity graph 1986-2015

Figure 2: Trend in breeding productivity (no. of chicks fledged per pair) of northern fulmar in Scotland, 1986-2015. Based on SMP data; view the methods of analysis (PDF 158 kb).

 

The trend in productivity for Scotland closely matches that of the UK because much of the data have been collected at Scottish colonies. Comments under the UK section are thus also pertinent to Scotland - declines in productivity since the mid 1990s may have contributed to the observed fall in abundance since that time, although it should be noted that immature birds take approximately nine years to recruit into the breeding population. In Shetland, breeding success at Fair Isle, Sumburgh Head and Foula (averaged 0.54, 033 and 0.24 chicks fledged per apparently occupied site, respectively) was similar or reduced in 2015 compared to 20145, 6. This was due to heavy rain at several colonies and is likely to have contributed to the decline in productivity observed in Scotland in 2015.

 

 

Population estimates and change 1969-2002 (census data)

 

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998-2002)

Population estimate (AOS*) 3,063 6,018 6,291
% change since previous census    N/a +96 +5

 

* AOS = Apparently Occupied Sites

 

Breeding Abundance

 

England fulmar abundance trend

Figure 1: Trend in abundance index (solid line) of northern fulmar in England, 1986-2015 with 95% confidence limits (dotted lines). Based on SMP data; view the methods of analysis (PDF 158 kb).

 

In England, northern fulmar numbers almost doubled between the first two national censuses but appear to stabilise afterward. The distribution of northern fulmars in England is roughly split between the north-east and south-west (see Distribution section). However, most regular monitoring occurs in the north-east where several colonies have been counted annually up to 2015. The trend at colonies monitored as part of the SMP is similar to that from national census data. Post Seabird 2000, the index fluctuates with no discernible trend.

 

Productivity

 

Fulmar England productivity graph 1986-2015

Figure 2: Trend in breeding productivity (no. of chicks fledged per pair) of northern fulmar in England, 1986-2015. Based on SMP data; view the methods of analysis (PDF 158 kb).

 

The productivity of northern fulmars in England shows no clear trend over time. Levels are generally moderate to high seldom falling below 0.40 chicks fledged per site. Northern fulmar breeding success at Coquet Island and Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliffs SPA were higher compared to 2014 contributing to the increase in breeding productivity (of 0.69 and 0.63 chicks fledged per pair, respectively) observed in England in 2015.

 

 

Population estimates and change 1969-2002 (census data)

 

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998-2002)

Population estimate (AOS*) 925 2,741 3,474
% change since previous census    N/a +196 +27

 

* AOS = Apparently Occupied Sites

 

Breeding Abundance

 

Wales fulmar abundance trend

Figure 1: Trend in abundance index (solid line) of northern fulmar in Wales, 1986-2015 with 95% confidence limits (dotted lines). Based on SMP data; view the methods of analysis (PDF 158 kb).

 

The abundance index of northern fulmars in Wales also shows an increasing trend at least up to the mid 1990s. The steady decline in abundance evident for the UK and Scotland starting around the mid to late 1990s is absent, the index appearing relatively stable until 2005. However, thereafter a noticeable decline occurs up to 2009 after which abundance has been more or less stable again. The long-term change shows that numbers have increased markedly since Operation Seafarer; the population during 1998-2002 was almost four times that recorded in 1969-70.

 

Productivity

Fulmar productivity Wales 2015

Figure 2: Trend in breeding productivity (no. of chicks fledged per pair) of northern fulmar in Wales, 1986-2015. Based on SMP data; view the methods of analysis (PDF 158 kb).

 

Although few data are available until 1992, productivity in Wales has on average been higher than in Scotland and England over the same period. However, productivity in Wales has declined in recent years (2006 onwards) closer to that recorded in Scotland. The reasons for the decline in productivity are unknown.

 

 

Population estimates and change 1969-2002 (census data)

 

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998-2002)

Population estimate (AOS*) 2,239 3,540 5,992
% change since previous census    N/a +58 +69

 

* AOS = Apparently Occupied Sites

 

Breeding Abundance

 

Seabird 2000 recorded 5,992 AOS in Northern Ireland, 69% more than the previous SCR census which found 3,540 AOS, which was also an increase since Operation Seafarer. Few colonies are monitored annually so it is difficult to draw conclusions as to the population trend since Seabird 2000. However, in 2014, extensive survey work resulted in data submitted from 28 colonies which held a total of 629 AOS, 53% fewer than recorded at the same colonies during Seabird 2000 (1,347 AOS). Rathlin Island (Co. Antrim), not part of the suite of colonies surveyed in 2014, is the largest and most important colony in Northern Ireland, holding almost 60% of the country’s total population during Seabird 2000. A large decline occurred there between 1999 and 2007 with whole-colony counts revealing a 47% fall from 2,032 to 1,072 AOS, although a repeat survey in 2011 found 1,518 AOS, but still 25% fewer than in 1999. The exact reasons for these large changes at Rathlin are unknown. Numbers in Northern Ireland are falling but estimating the size of the decline accurately is problematic given the lack of more recent data from Rathlin.

 

Productivity

 

Data submitted to the SMP on the productivity of northern fulmars in Northern Ireland are sparse; thus, no meaningful average productivity value can be provided.

 

 

Population estimates and change 1969-2002 (census data)

 

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998-2002)

Population estimate (AOS*) 17,080 16,975 32,918
% change since previous census    N/a <-1 +94

 

* AOS = Apparently Occupied Sites

 

Breeding Abundance

 

National census data indicate that numbers of northern fulmar were stable between Operation Seafarer and the Seabird Colony Register but then almost doubled by Seabird 2000. In 2015, the largest and most important cliff‐nesting seabird colonies, including those colonies that have been designated as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under the European Union Birds Directive were surveyed. Northern fulmar was one of four priority species counted in 2015 at 31 colonies in the Republic of Ireland; a total of 21,937 AOS were counted, 33% fewer compared to 32,918 AOS during Seabird 20007.

 

Productivity

 

The productivity of northern fulmars in the Republic of Ireland shows no statistically significant variation over time; approximately 0.36 chicks were fledged per pair per year between 2006 and 2015.

 

 

Population estimates and change 1969-2002 (census data)

 

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998-2002)

Population estimate (AOS*) 19,319 20,515 38,910
% change since previous census    N/a +6 +90

 

* AOS = Apparently Occupied Sites

 

Breeding Abundance

 

For the whole of Ireland, northern fulmar numbers were relatively stable between Operation Seafarer and the Seabird Colony Register but then almost doubled by Seabird 2000. In 2014, extensive survey work in Northern Ireland resulted in data submitted from 28 colonies which held 53% fewer than recorded at the same colonies during Seabird 2000. However, this survey did not include Rathlin Island, which held almost 60% of the country’s total population during Seabird 2000. Numbers in Northern Ireland are falling but estimating the size of the decline accurately is problematic given the lack of more recent data from Rathlin. A recent survey of the most important fulmar colonies in the Republic of Ireland has revealed that 33% fewer AOS compared to Seabird 2000 were counted7. The Republic of Ireland holds the majority of the all-Ireland population of northern fulmars (about 85% during Seabird 2000) therefore suggesting that northern fulmar numbers are in decline.

 

Productivity

 

Data submitted to the SMP on the productivity of northern fulmars in all-Ireland are sparse; thus, no meaningful average productivity value can be provided. 

 

 

Population estimates and change 1969-2002 (census data)

 

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998-2002)

Population estimate (AOS*) 586 2,463 3,147
% change since previous census    N/a +320 +28

 

* AOS = Apparently Occupied Sites

 

Breeding Abundance

 

Fulmar Calf of Man abundance 2015

Figure 1: Abundance of northern fulmar on the Calf of Man (Isle of Man), 1986-2015.

 

As with many regions around the British Isles the northern fulmar population on the Isle of Man has increased hugely after Operation Seafarer. A large increase of 320% occurred between 1969-70 and 1985-88 with another less dramatic increase of 28% between 1985-88 and 1998-2002. Post Seabird 2000, data are available only from a few small colonies. However, the trend derived from the colonies sampled between census periods does not match the change in the Isle of Man population that is known to have occurred (e.g. from census data). The largest colony counted regularly is the Calf of Man, where numbers have fluctuated, particularly in the late 1990s. Since then, there appears to have been a decline with numbers in 2014 and 2015 (both 50 AOS) at their lowest since 1986. 

 

Productivity

 

Fulmar Isle of Man productivity trend

Figure 1: Trend in breeding productivity (no. of chicks fledged per pair) of northern fulmar on the Isle of Man, 1986-2014. Based on SMP data; view the methods of analysis (PDF 158 kb).

 

Northern fulmar productivity on the Isle of Man has fluctuated greatly over the recording period. However, within this variation there does appear to be a declining trend in productivity since the mid 1990s at least. Productivity has been very low in 1995, 2003, 2006, 2008 and from 2012 to 2014. In 1995, an unknown proportion of chicks died from heat stress during a hot and dry summer, and in 2012 low productivity was probably due to high rainfall during June and July. The reasons for low productivity in other years are unknown. For 2015, no productivity data on northern fulmar were submitted to the SMP.

  

 

Population estimates and change 1969-2002 (census data)

 

 

Operation Seafarer    

(1969-70)

Seabird Colony Register    

(1985-88)

Seabird 2000    

(1998-2002)

Population estimate (AOS*) 0 200 317
% change since previous census    N/a N/a +59

 

* AOS = Apparently Occupied Sites

 

Breeding Abundance

 

During Operation Seafarer, apparently no northern fulmars were recorded on the Channel Islands despite extensive survey coverage. The first recorded breeding was in 1975, on Jersey and Alderney, with Guernsey colonised in 1985 and Sark in 1986. Thus, by the time of the Seabird Colony Register at least 200 pairs were breeding. Seabird 2000 recorded a further increase, of 59%, with 317 AOS counted. The few data collected since have all been from Alderney which held 50 AOS (c.16% of the population) during Seabird 2000. Several counts there between 2007 and 2015 all lie within a range of 26-38 AOS suggesting a decline. The current trend for the Channel Islands as a whole is unknown but given the decline on Alderney, and that declines have been reported from many other countries in the UK and in Ireland since Seabird 2000, it suggests that numbers will probably have fallen.   

 

Productivity

 

Data submitted to the SMP on the productivity of northern fulmars in the Channel Islands are sparse; thus, no meaningful average productivity value can be given.

 

 


Phenology, diet, survival rates

 

No data have been collected as part of the Seabird Monitoring Programme.

 


References

1 Fisher, J. 1952. The Northern Fulmar. Collins, London.

2 Salomonsen, F. 1965. Geographic variation of the Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) and zones of the marine environment in the North Atlantic. Auk 85: 327-355.

3 Wynne-Edwards, V.C. 1962. Animal dispersion in relation to social behaviour. Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh.

4 Cook, A.S.C.P. and Robinson, R.A. 2010. How representative is the current monitoring of breeding success in the UK? BTO Research Report No. 573, BTO, Thetford.

5 Parnaby, D., Hatsell, C.R., Gregory, L.V., Dodd, C. & Crane, J.M.S.  2015. Fair Isle Seabird Studies 2015.  Unpublished JNCC Report, Peterborough.

6 Heubeck, M. and Mellor, M. 2015. SOTEAG Ornithological Monitoring Programme: 2015 Progress Report. Aberdeen Institute of Coastal Science and Management, University of Aberdeen. 

7 Newton, S.  Lewis, L. and  Trewby, M. 2015. Results of a Breeding Survey of Important Cliff‐Nesting Seabird Colonies in Ireland 2015. National Parks and Wildlife Service Ireland.


Partners

Data have been provided to the SMP by the generous contributions of its partners, other organisations and volunteers throughout Britain and Ireland. Partners to the SMP are: BirdWatch Ireland; The British Trust for Ornithology; Centre for Ecology and Hydrology; Natural Resources Wales; Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture (Isle of Man); Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Republic of Ireland); States of Guernsey Government; JNCC; Manx Birdlife; Manx National Heritage; The National Trust; National Trust for Scotland; Natural England; Northern Ireland Environment Agency; The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; Scottish Natural Heritage; Seabird Group; Shetland Oil Terminal Environmental Advisory Group; Scottish Wildlife Trust.   More about the SMP partners >>

 
Northern fulmar image appears courtesy of Ian Rendall ©, is subject to international copyright law and may not be reproduced in any form whatsoever.