Puffins Love Forage Fish – And So Should You

puffin head-on© Jud Crawford/The Pew Charitable Trusts

A puffin parent brings fish to its nestling, which is waiting in a burrow beneath the boulders.

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 the Gulf of Maine, thanks in large part to Steve Kress of the National Audubon Society who conceived Project Puffin four decades ago to reestablish nesting colonies on some islands. Each summer, Kress and his dedicated interns closely monitor puffins, their diets, and their nesting success—or the percentage of puffin pairs whose chicks fledge. 

Kress recently told me 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. “Puffin parents could not find enough of the fish the chicks need, such as herring,” Kress told me, “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 heat up. The warm waters apparently disrupted the region’s food web, making some fish less available.  

There’s a lesson in this that 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 each year. That’s roughly 1.5 billion fish. Most of that catch is not eaten by people, but goes to supply bait for the lobster industry.

Pew is working to encourage a science-based approach to managing this kind of fishing that will account for the needs of puffins and other wildlife that depend on forage fish for food. That’s why we’re supporting Kress’s research to learn more about the diets of puffins and other seabirds. 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 have recently returned to shore and tallied results for the 2014 season. Happily, Steve Kress reports 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.

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