It’s fair to say that people tend to give more attention to endangered animal populations when the animals in question are cute. In the case of the ridiculously endearing puffins of Seal Island, their sharp decline over the last two breeding seasons is an indicator of significant environmental and population shifts that are having an impact on all marine life in the Gulf of Maine.
Since 1973, Stephen Kress has been monitoring puffins on the islands off the coast of Maine on behalf of the Audubon Society. His Project Puffin worked to restore puffin numbers after hundreds of years of hunting. By 2013, the population had finally reached 1,000 breeding pairs and puffin cams were installed in 2012 to draw attention to the project. Sadly, one of the monitored chicks died on-camera, and the footage revealed the cause of death of all but 31 percent of the puffin chicks that hatched that year. Normally, 77 percent of hatchlings survive.
Puffins generally feed their young small hake or herring, which are slim in profile. However, the chick’s parents kept bringing him butterfish, which were too wide for the chick to swallow and he eventually starved to death. Kress investigated and discovered that hake and herring populations had crashed in the usually frigid waters, which were recording temperatures 3.5 degrees above their normal 44 degrees Fahrenheit (6.6 degrees C). These conditions were perfect for butterfish moving up from the south, but not so supportive of hake and herring. The abnormally warm temperatures were also credited with a bumper lobster catch that year (and subsequent plunge in prices) as well as the disappearance of shrimp, right whales and the iconic cod.
In 2013, water temperatures were averaging 46.6 degrees F (8.1 degrees C). Kress monitored the young puffins’ diets carefully and was pleased to see that parents were bringing them fewer butterfish. However, he also noticed that parents were away from the nest for longer and that fewer puffins were gathering on the puffin “loafing ledge” to socialize, also the subject of a puffin cam. He realized that adult puffins were having to forage wider for food because there was not enough available in the waters around the island. In 2013, only 10 percent of the puffin chicks survived – the worst survival rate on record.
A new puffin nest camera has been set up for the 2014 breeding season and Kress will monitor it closely. Because many other species are also showing signs of impact, the acute nature of the changes has taken everyone by surprise. Highly adaptable species are moving into the Gulf from the south, and cold-water specialists are moving away if they can or struggling if they can’t. Kress will fit some puffins with GPS tracking devices to learn more about where they feed and where they head in winter with the aim of identifying potential new long-term habitats.