Volunteers rescuing Atlantic puffin chicks, called “puffins,” knew something was wrong when so few strays turned up from the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula this summer.
Chicks emerge from their burrow at night to avoid predators, but some are attracted to the lights of rapidly growing coastal communities. Members of a group called Puffin Patrol capture the stranded puffins and release them into the ocean.
“The Puffin Patrol didn’t find many birds,” said Sabina Wilhelm, a wildlife biologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada.
“And the birds that were found actually had a very small body weight.”
Some were less than half the normal size for puffins their age.
After searching a sample of nests in the ecological reserve where Atlantic puffins congregate to breed each spring, Wilhelm and his colleagues discovered that many chicks had died.
The grim discovery connects the fate of the Atlantic puffin (which is not only the official bird of Newfoundland and Labrador, but a ubiquitous sight in the province) to serious problems in ocean ecology, including warming ocean temperatures and a food web. complex and in difficulties.
‘They died of hunger’
The tests ruled out bird flu, which caused a mass die-off of birds in 2022.
“Just based on body mass and just picking up the dead chicks, which were just skin and bones, they essentially starved to death.”
Adult puffins dive for food, such as capelin, a forage fish that can make up up to 50 percent of their diet, and carry it back to the nest, a burrow in the cliffs.
But when food is scarce, the adults feed themselves and the chick starves to death.
Another anomaly is that the puffins bred late this year, Wilhelm said.
“They usually start fledging in early August and by the end of August or early September most are gone,” he said.
“There seems to have been a mismatch between reproductive activity and the fact that the capelin disappeared… In other years, there may have still been a lot of capelin in August. That just didn’t happen this year.”
Warmer ocean temperatures also hurt Atlantic puffins, which can dive as deep as 50 meters to catch capelin and other forage fish such as spearfish and herring.
“So if the fish move lower in the water column because the waters are warmer, then all of a sudden… they’re no longer accessible to the puffins because they can’t dive as deep,” Wilhelm said.
With more than 300,000 pairs nesting and breeding in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, the Atlantic puffin population is robust overall, Wilhelm said.
Because they live to be 20 years old, losing their offspring in one year does not spell disaster for the species. But the starvation of so many Atlantic chicks this year is worrying, Wilhelm said.
When tour boat operator Joe O’Brien noticed dead chicks floating in the water, he alerted Wilhelm and his colleagues.
O’Brien, a former fisherman, has been bringing tourists to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve for 39 summers.
With so many species, from cod to seabirds and whales, relying on capelin to survive, O’Brien says it’s time to take a new approach to managing this fishery.
“Should we harvest capelin?” -O’Brien asked. “Shouldn’t that be a signal to management that we should change our philosophy regarding the ocean?”
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans classifies the capelin stock as “critical” but allowed a commercial fishery of 14,533 tonnes in 2023 for the second year in a row.
In its capelin management plan, DFO said: “Science shows that the fishery’s impact on capelin is small compared to predation on other species such as seabirds, cod and other fish.”
Capelin is caught using a seine net, which surrounds the fish, corralling them into the net and tightening it, similar to a cord, before lifting them aboard a fishing boat.
However, the species is a mere fraction of its abundance in the 1980s. As the main food for cod, overfishing of capelin is recognized as one of the key factors in the collapse of northern cod stocks more than three years ago. decades.
Valued for their eggs or roe, female capelin is exported to China, the United States, Taiwan and Japan.
In the 2023 season, capelin sold for an average of 16 cents per pound, generating $4.5 million for fishermen in landed value, making it one of the least lucrative fisheries in the province.
“We’re destroying them in massive volumes… we’re only taking the females… That’s crazy,” O’Brien said.
“Why do we capture one of the main food sources for almost everything in the water in the water?”
Capelin fishing is “incomprehensible”
Ian Jones, a seabird biologist at Memorial University, is also concerned about the impact capelin fishing has on the entire ecosystem.
“When I hear these claims that somehow you can still catch a forage fish like this… it’s incomprehensible to me,” he said, adding that fishing “probably doesn’t make a lot of money.”
The effects of fishing for a forage species, a rapidly warming ocean due to climate change, increasing amounts of artificial light, seabird hunting and monofilament fishing nets stack up against long-term survival. term for seabirds, Jones said.
While Atlantic puffins may suffer some mortality due to their abundance, Leach’s petrel has seen a decline of about 50 percent in recent years, he said.
“We haven’t seen a bird disappear at this rate since the passenger pigeon,” Jones said.
Like the Atlantic puffin, Leach’s petrel is also affected by increasing amounts of artificial light from offshore communities, ships and oil facilities.
“These seabirds that have evolved to survive in one of the harshest environments on Earth are faced with this completely disorienting artificial light,” Jones said. “They don’t make it out to sea, so they basically get stranded on land and die in large numbers.”
‘Canary in the coal mine’
The United Nations calls light pollution “a significant and growing threat to wildlife” contributing to the deaths of millions of birds around the world.
Seabirds that migrate at night and stray off course in pursuit of artificial light risk exhaustion, being eaten by predators, or colliding with buildings.
The impact of warming ocean temperatures is already being seen in other Atlantic puffin populations.
“The concern is that these puffins are going to experience the same fate here in Newfoundland that they are experiencing in the eastern Atlantic,” Jones said, “as year after year no chicks survive, the population begins to plummet and then in some areas disappear.”
Seabirds are a great indicator of ecosystem health, Wilhelm said, and O’Brien said the puffin warns us that the ocean is under pressure due to climate change.
“The puffin behaves like the canary in the coal mine.”
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