By PETER BAKER/ecoRI News contributor
I can’t help but smile when I see a puffin, and I know I’m not alone. Thousands of people board tour boats each summer in Maine to get a glimpse of these charming seabirds with their tuxedo plumage and rainbow beaks.
But what’s in those beaks is serious business. The forage fish that puffin parents bring back to their island nests mean the difference between life and death for the chicks, and the past few years offer stark evidence of what happens when those fish become scarce.
We’re fortunate to have puffins in New England, thanks in large part to Steve Kress of the National Audubon Society who conceived Project Puffin four decades ago to re-establish nesting colonies on some islands in the Gulf of Maine. Each summer, Kress and his dedicated interns closely monitor puffins, their diets and their nesting success — the percentage of puffin pairs whose chicks fledge.
Kress recently said that after years of steady breeding success, the number of new puffins emerging from nests plummeted alarmingly in 2012 and 2013. Nesting success dropped from about 77 percent to just 10 percent, he said.
“Puffin parents could not find enough of the fish the chicks need, such as herring,” Kress said, “and some of the other fish species they could catch were the wrong shape for chicks to swallow.”
As the researchers helplessly watched nestlings starve, they puzzled over what was happening. Sea surface temperatures provided a clue.
The waters of the Gulf of Maine had been slowly but steadily warming over many years, consistent with what scientific models say will happen as the climate changes. Then the past two years brought an additional spike in water temperatures, breaking the 150-year-old record. Scientists called it an “ocean heat wave” and warned that these conditions will likely become more common as oceans warm up. The warm waters apparently disrupted the region’s food web, making some fish less available, according to researchers.
There’s a lesson in this that they say we should heed as we manage the fishing fleets that remove billions of forage fish from marine ecosystems. The herring fishery, which is dominated by industrial-scale trawlers, takes an average of 100 thousand metric tons of herring from New England waters annually — roughly 1.5 billion fish. Most of that catch isn’t eaten by people, but goes to supply bait for the lobster industry.
Kress’s research team is learning more about the diets of puffins and other seabirds, because the better management of forage fish will provide a buffer against the disruptions that warming waters can bring and help ocean wildlife adapt.
The researchers who spent the summer camped on the puffin nesting islands recently returned to shore and tallied results for the 2014 season. Happily, Kress reported that this year was much better, with about three-quarters of the puffins successfully raising chicks in Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, Maine’s largest nesting colony.
This achievement coincided with a brief moderation in the region’s water temperatures and the return of more abundant forage fish. But if the recent “ocean heat wave” offers a glimpse of a warmer future, as many scientists suggest, then we need to find ways to manage fisheries to restore and protect healthy oceans in a climate of change.
Peter Baker directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. ocean conservation efforts in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.