US Puffins In Danger
June 3, 2013

US Puffins Suffer From Warming Waters And Declining Fish Stock

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

The population of Atlantic puffins is showing signs that it may be in trouble, and scientists now say that the problems plaguing the iconic birds could be an early warning for the conservation of other seabird species.

Based on observations of puffins that visit the Gulf of Maine, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts and other New England institutions say the seabirds have been losing body weight and dying of starvation, possibly because of climate change-induced shifts in ocean fish populations.

Researchers also they saw the survival rates of fledglings living in Maine's two largest puffin colonies drop last summer, while individual birds were showing signs of deteriorating health.

"It's our marine canary in a coal mine, if you will," puffin expert Rebecca Holberton, a professor at the University of Maine, told the Associated Press.

Often referred to as the clown of the sea due to its colorful beak and unique waddle, the Atlantic puffin is sometimes a symbol for successful seabird restoration. After Maine settlers aggressively hunted them in the late 1800s, only one pair of puffins nested on remote Matinicus Rock off the coast of Maine by 1901.

Conservation efforts have boosted the Maine population to over 2,000 birds across three islands. However, scientists said the population took a big hit last summer, possibly because of a lack of herring, their main food source.

Puffins have been observed feeding their young large numbers of butterfish, which have traditionally been a more southerly fish that are becoming more prevalent in the Gulf. Many chicks ended up starving to death because the butterfish were too big to eat, and mounds of uneaten butterfish have been found next to some of the dead birds, according to Steve Kress, director of the National Audubon Society's seabird restoration program.

Kress blames the shifting fish patterns on rising Gulf of Maine water temperatures, which he said are causing butterfish to grow faster and earlier on an unusually early phytoplankton bloom. With a high mortality rate, mysterious die-offs and unprecedented ocean conditions washing away puffin burrows, Kress says he is worried about what the future might bring for puffins and other seabirds.

"We don't know how the puffin will adapt to these changes — or if they'll adapt to these conditions," Kress said.

Over the winter, more than 2,500 dead puffins washed ashore in Scotland, and about 40 were found on the Massachusetts shore. Scientists have said that every bird found dead represents dozens or hundreds more that died and did not wash ashore.

"That's a large number of birds for the Gulf of Maine," Kress said. "We don't have that many birds to spare."

Necropsies on the Massachusetts birds indicated that they starved to death, says Julie Ellis, project director for The Seabird Ecological Assessment Network at Tufts University.

Other seabird populations have also been showing signs of distress. Machias Seal Island off the coast of Maine used to have more than 3,000 terns, but only small numbers have come back each summer since 2007.

While he remains optimistic that the Gulf population will sustain itself and rebound, Kress said he's concerned about what he's seeing.

"You never know what climate change will bring," he said. "Historic fish could move out and more southerly fish could move in, and puffins may adapt to the new fish. Only they will know how the story will unfold."

NOAA scientists have said they are looking at how shifting fish populations can affect puffins and Arctic terns.