Indicator: Plastic waste in the North Sea

A graph shows the 5-year averages for 2003 to 2016 of the proportion of fulmars with stomachs containing over 0.1 grammes of plastic. The indicator remains at around 60 percent.Click to enlarge
Percentage of beached fulmars on the North Sea coasts of Germany with over 0.1 g of plastic ...
Source: Research and Technology Centre West Coast Figure as PDF

Table of Contents


At a glance

  • Since studies began, the stomachs of 93 % to 97 % beached fulmars have been found to contain plastics.
  • Around 60 % of beached fulmars on the North Sea coasts have more than 0.1 grammes of plastic in their stomachs.
  • The target set by the OSPAR convention is to reduce this to a maximum of 10 %. However, it may take a long time to reach this target.
  • Large quantities of plastic waste still end up in the oceans, where plastic degrades very slowly.

Environmental importance

Every year between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the oceans (Jambeck et al. 2015). Plastic parts are considered food by animals and, after consumption, can injure and clog their digestive organs, which can lead to their death. Around 800 marine species are known to be negatively affected by contact with marine litter. The most obvious effects are ingestion of and entanglement in marine litter. The entanglement of marine life in litter items causes visible injuries which can be fatal, the effects of swallowing litter are often invisible.

For monitoring purposes, the fulmar has been established as an indicator species in the North Sea. This seabird has a wide distribution and feeds exclusively at the open sea. There, he confuses floating plastic parts with food particles and accumulates them in his stomach for several weeks. So far no species has been identified for the Baltic Sea which can be used for similar studies. Therefore no comparable information for the Baltic Sea is available for the time being.


Assessing the development

The majority of the fulmars (currently 97 %) found dead on the beaches of the German North Sea coast have plastic waste in their stomachs. While the average quantity of plastic swallowed in recent years has declined slightly, the proportion of animals with more than 0.1 g of plastic in their stomach remains at a high level. It fluctuates between 56 % and 62 % during the study period without a clear statistical trend.

Germany has signed the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR). In 2008 the Contracting Parties to OSPAR decided as one of its so-called Ecological Quality Objective (EcoQO) that the percentage of beached fulmars having more than 0.1 g of plastic in their stomachs should be 10 % at the maximum. This value was derived from fulmars in the relatively unpolluted Canadian Arctic.

Large quantities of plastic waste are still entering the seas and plastics take a very long time to break down. Therefore it can be expected, that the OSPAR target can only be achieved in the long term. An important instrument for reducing further inputs and existing quantities of marine litter in the Northeast Atlantic is the OSPAR Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter adopted in 2014 (OSPAR Commission 2014). It addresses a series of measures related to the relevant sea- and land-based sources and on opportunities for the removal of marine litter and awareness raising.



The indicator is based on studies of beached (dead) fulmars on the North Sea coasts of Germany (south-east North Sea). In the laboratory, various parameters are then determined regarding the state of health and the possible cause of death. The stomach contents are then examined. Found plastic particles are classified into different categories, counted and weighed. The indicator is then used to calculate the percentage of kingfishers with more than 0.1 grammes of plastic in their stomach. As the values sometimes greatly deal between years, the indicator is calculated as the average of the last five years. A detailed description of the methods is given in Guse et al. (2012, in German only). In the other countries bordering the North Sea, the plastic contamination of fulmars is also determined using the same standardised method in order to be able to compare the development between the regions.

More detailed information: 'Müll im Meer' (in German only).