Something is seriously wrong with the Oslo Fjord and no one seems to fully understand why. Both fish and mussels have been disappearing, while the fjord’s characteristic seabirds known as ærfugl (common eider) have been found dead from Agder in the south to Østfold farther north.
Newspaper Dagsavisen has reported that the dead birds are believed to have simply starved to death. Experts conclude that only one thing is certain: the Oslo Fjord’s ecosystem has come under severe pressure despite massive efforts to clean up sewage and industrial pollution for decades.
Around 240 dead birds had been found as of mid-April. On Sunday, Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that around 400 have now been found lifeless along the shoreline. Per Espen Fjeld of the conservation agency Statens naturoppsyn (SNO) told Dagsavisen a month ago that he fears the real number is several thousand.
They’ve lost major sources of their food, he noted, not least the mussels called blåskjell in Norwegian that once flourished along the fjord and are also widely viewed as a delicacy for human consumption. Fjeld noted that cod, while plentiful in waters off Northern Norway, has also disappeared along with other popular white fish like sei, lyr and hvitting (all similar to pollack).
At the same time, new and unwanted species have been moving in, including new types of algae and seaweed and, most troublesome, oysters with razor-sharp shells that have been congegrating along the fjord, not least in the area around Fredrikstad and the Hvaler islands. Fjeld says that “presents challenges” to the birds and other species who’ve had their menus upset.
While the waters of the Oslo Fjord have been cleaned up in recent years, especially after major industry ceded now-pricey waterfront areas to real estate developers instead of shipyards and factories, there’s also “an incredible amount of plastic in the water,” Fjeld told Dagsavisen. Despite national efforts to control and clean up plastic waste, the large amounts still found can be deadly to all kinds of marine species who inadvertently consume it and die of malnutrition.
“We’re seeing big changes right now and there’s a lot of concern about them,” Haakon Haaverstad, a marine biologist and colleague of Fjeld at SNO, told NRK over the weekend. “And there’s a lot of marine pollution. We cleaned up the whole area around a year ago and now were seeing more plastic garbage washed in from sea.”
The shores of the Oslo Fjord and Skagerrak farther south have also been littered in recent weeks with millions of tiny plastic pellets that spilled from a damaged container on board a ship during a storm in late February. The shipping line and its insurance company are prepared to cover clean-up costs, but that won’t help marine species that may ingest them.
Malin Rokseth Teiten of Norway’s state veterinary institute confirmed that dead birds sent in for testing by authorities in Telemark did indeed die of starvation. “They lacked nutrituion, had no fat reserves left and their muscles could no long support their wings for flight,” Teiten told Dagsavisen. “Their digestive systems were empty.” She said several were also plagued by a parasite, while tests for bird flu and bacterial infections were negative.
More tests are now underway, while attention is also turning to why the fjord has been all but emptied of fish. Newspaper Aftenposten reported late last year that a new report from marine competence firm SALT, commissioned by the state environmental directorate (Miljødirektoratet), cited higher use of the fjord by ship traffic and higher concentration of toxics in the water but also climate change and lots of fishing.
“The collapse of bottom fish (including cod) is a combination of the water getting warmer because of global climate change,” Sigurd Heiberg Espeland, a researcher at Havforskningsinstituttet, told Aftenposten. “When the water gets too warm, these fish struggle to have enough babies.”
Crisis times for fishing boat owners
That’s why there’s also been an increase of fish that prefer warmer waters, like mackerel, he noted. The SALT report noted that environmental conditions in the Oslo Fjord are best in its outer portions, growing worse from where the fjord narrows just south of Oslo and ends in the Bunnefjorden east of the Nesodden peninsula. The waters of both it and the fjord up towards Drammen also lack oxygen on their sea bottoms.
Norway’s state food safety authority (Mattilsynet) has warned against consumption of fish and shellfish from the inner Oslofjord and also from areas around Grenland (Porsgrunn and Skien), Kragerø and Sandefjord. That in turn has contributed to a dramatic decline in commercial fishing boats based in Oslo, from 13 in 2017 to just three as of January. Not only have fishing stocks declined, boat owners have faced fishing bans, much stricter technical requirements and higher costs for tying up in Oslo’s inner harbour at Vika.
“The politicians make official statements that having fishing boats at Rådhusbrygga (the piers along the City Hall plaza) is a good thing,” Geir Solhaug, leader of a group representing fishing boat owners in the Inner Oslo Fjord, told Dagsavisen, “and they make grand statements about the importance of sustainability and local food production. But with the other hand, they’re taking away our livelihood. We are so squeezed right now.”
The few boats still occasionally selling seafood off their boats berthed near City Hall mostly offer only fresh shrimps cooked on board. When Solhaug is out trawling, often in waters off Horten because of bans on cod fishing around Oslo, he also notes that he pulls up lots of unwanted items from the bottom of the fjord as well. “It’s not my garbage, but I can’t just throw it back in the sea,” he said. “I gather it and take it to the dump.” That generates additional costs.
He and his dwindling number of colleagues are asking for relief measures, and also hoping for more attention from the state. The broader environmental and climate challenges demand more attention as well, as crab and other scavenger fish eat up what’s left of the cod and mussel breeding grounds that have provided nourishment for the now-starving seabirds.
Officials working on a plan
Both state and local officials are working on a new sustainability plan for the Oslo Fjord, based on input from the state environmental directorate and many other researchers. Marit Vea, an Oslo City Council member for the Liberal Party that also is part of Norway’s state government coalition, told Dagsavisen it will be presented later this year.
“It’s critical that we come up with measures to resolve all the challenges facing the Oslo Fjord,” Vea told Dagsavisen. That includes, she said, better control of toxins entering the water from industry, winter salt dumping, farm chemical spillage and, not least, plastics. There have also been concerns about overfishing, with a ban since New Year on any fishing in old breeding grounds for cod.
“The ecosystem in the Oslo Fjord is complex,” marine biologist Haaverstad at SNO told NRK, “but we’re seeing that the effects out here are getting very large. If this is caused by human activity, which it probably is, we must have goal-oriented measures to get everything back to normal.”