Northern Gannet | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

Northern Gannet

Morus bassanus

Also known as

Gannet

Distribution

Both sides of the Atlantic; from Labrador and Norway south to the equator

Ecosystem/Habitat

Nest on rocky shores & cliffs; feed in the ocean

Feeding Habits

Active (diving) predator

Conservation Status

Not listed

Taxonomy

Order Siliformes (cormorants, gannets & relatives); Family Sulidae (gannets and boobies)

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Northern gannets live the vast majority of their lives at sea, only coming ashore to breed and raise their chicks. They are fast and powerful flyers, but can also glide for hours just above the waves, barely flapping their wings. They are plunge-divers, able to enter the water from heights of more than 30 meters in search of fish. Although most of their dives are relatively shallow, Northern gannets can go as deep as 22 meters, using their large webbed feet and wings to swim down in pursuit of fish. After spotting a fish, gannets will wheel around in the air and dive nearly straight down. Just before entering the water they thrust their wings out straight behind their back in a torpedo-like fashion, allowing them to pierce through the water at incredible speeds. 

In the 19th century, Northern gannets were harvested off of Newfoundland and Labrador and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence as bait for cod fisheries. This greatly reduced the number of breeding pairs until bird protection laws were put in place at the turn of the century. Although they are not directly targeted by fishers today, they are still affected by fishing activities. As a diving predator, Northern gannets can get tangled and drown in gillnets when they dive down for fish. This has been recorded in gillnet fisheries for Atlantic cod and capelin. Northern gannets also pick up floating debris to build their nests, which can result in entanglements. Once entangled, chicks and adults can die from starvation, however mortality caused by this type of pollution seems to be very low. Interactions between gannets and fishing gear also occurs because, like many seabirds, they are known to follow fishing vessels. Northern gannets pick off fish that are thrown overboard, even taking the fish right out of nets as they are pulled aboard.