Sunday, 30 March 2014

Cod is Great

Hornøya seabird cliff is a true wildlife spectacle.  In seabird terms it is like the Farne Islands with knobs on (and without the hoards of people).  As we approached the island, clouds of auks lifted from the sea around us.  Once on land, waves and waves of Puffins and Guillemots wheeled around, settling on the cliffs, fighting over a scrap of precious ground and then leaping off the cliffs en masse to descend to the sea again. The mass wheeling around is accompanied by fighting in all areas.  In particular the Puffins provide some amazing fight scenes .  However, if you want to witness this activity, it is relatively short-lived for a few weeks in early spring as the birds arrive back on the cliff and claim territory.  Surveys suggest that between 100,000 and 150,000 birds breed on the island, recent surveys show 20,000 pairs of Puffin, 6,000 - 7,000 pairs of Guillemot, 400-500 pairs of Brünnich’s Guillemots and 12,000 pairs of Kittiwake. 

Boats out to the island are provided by Vardo Harbour KF (, dropping you at a small jetty on the island.  A Biotope hide sits at the base of the cliff, cleverly designed to provide shelter in all weather conditions.  A path then winds along the base of the cliffs, with auks just above your head, and then rises up to the top of the island to provide eye-level views of the birds and then the most spectacular views of the wider area.  Undoubtedly, part of the attraction of this site is its wildness, but it should be possible to get more people to enjoy this spectacle. Increased visitor access could be achieved without detrimental effect if careful thought is given to access provision.

However, there are other less obvious and potentially much more important factors affecting the seabird populations. Luckily the seabirds in Varanger have been well studied.  The Guillemot population collapsed by more than 80% during the winter of 1986/1987, but has since steadily increased.  By contrast, there has been a large decline in Kittiwake numbers in the Varanger region since 1980.  Food availability has long been suggested to play a major role in regulating seabird populations. In general, seabirds feed on small pelagic fish and the younger age classes of larger predatory fish.   The fish species considered important on Hornøya are Capelin and Cod. When the Guillemot population collapsed in 1986/1987,  a long-term study showed that the abundance of the key fish prey was very low.  As the numbers of Guillemots increased, the study showed the annual variation in population growth could best be explained by the variation in abundance of Cod fry and Capelin. So what about the Kittiwakes?  Studies have shown that Kittiwake clutch size is a good indicator of feeding conditions.  Although clutch size of the Hornoya birds is good, they have continued to decline whilst other colonies in the region have increased.  The reason remains unclear.  However, on our own visit it was clear that Mink are numerous on the island and this should certainly be of concern.  

Fish populations are also of great importance to the local community of course; as it states on the harbour-side building at Vardo “Cod is Great”.  As you travel around the area, fish drying racks are an obvious feature. ‘Stockfish’ is an unsalted fish, especially Cod, dried by cold air and wind on wooden racks called hjell.  The drying of food is the world's oldest known preservation method and dried fish has a storage life of several years.   Stockfish is Norway's longest sustained export commodity and apparently the most profitable export over the centuries.  It is popular and widely eaten in Mediterranean countries (and by me!).

So Cod is indeed Great.   It supports the local community and the fantastic seabird populations.   The sustainable management of fish stocks are clearly paramount to this wonderful place.


Sophie Crossley said...

Great blog and good to spend time birding with you. See you at BirdFair.

Grumpy Ecologist said...

Likewise. Yes, look forward to Birdfair.