New England Fisheries

The Plight of the Puffin: Protect Our Fish, Our Birds, and Our Ocean Ecosystem

A parent puffin must bring an average of 2,500 fish to its hatchling before it grows enough to fledge. Photo Credit: Jud Crawford.

Machias Seal Island may be a disputed territory between the United States and Canada, but to the Atlantic Puffin, the island located in the Gulf of Maine between northern Maine and New Brunswick is its unquestionable home. Hosting the region’s largest colony of Atlantic Puffins, between 4,000 to 5,000 breeding pairs, the puffins here typically feed on forage fish, such as sand lance, herring, white hake, and capelin.

This summer, sadly, the puffin chicks on Machias Seal Island are starving due to a food shortage. As reported by the Portland Press Herald, typically 60 percent of nests produce fledglings –birds that fly off to sea at the end of summer. Only 12 percent of nests produced fledglings this year; that’s just 320 chicks. Worse yet, the chicks are undersized and the scientists studying the colony do not expect them to survive to breeding age.

Worst Breeding Season Ever Recorded

So what’s causing the food shortage on Machias Seal Island resulting in the worst breeding season on record? One argument is that there were too many mouths to feed and simply not enough fish to go around. Another is that warmer waters are impacting the fish populations that Atlantic Puffins rely on, as has been the case in years past. With the Gulf of Maine warming faster than nearly every other part of the ocean on the planet, predators like Atlantic Puffins have had to search for alternative food sources as their usual prey migrate to colder waters.

Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, told the Portland Press Herald that 2016 is trending to be the Gulf of Maine’s second-warmest year on record, with average sea surface temperatures a full 3 degrees above normal. Furthermore, he noted that waters have been warmer in the eastern part of the gulf compared to western areas, which might explain why puffins on Maine’s more southern islands (which are further west, nearer to the coast) are faring better than those on Machias Seal Island.

Reducing the Plight of the Puffin

Whatever the cause(s) of this year’s population drop, the plight of the puffins presents the opportunity to remind ourselves of the intricate connectedness of the ocean ecosystem and steps that New England can take to improve the health of our ocean, fisheries, and wildlife.

First, we must approach management from an ecosystem-based perspective for the benefit of our fish, birds, mammals, and communities. A New England Fishery Management Council team is currently developing a draft “example fishery ecosystem plan” that will account for the interactions among species that “participate in the food web” such as marine mammals and birds. This is a first step towards a more holistic and healthy approach to fisheries management, and we must move the model quickly, but smartly into practice.

Second, we must consider forage fish species that do not fall under a management plan in order to prevent unexpected overfishing. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council recently approved the Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment. If approved by the Secretary of Commerce, the Amendment would prohibit the development or expansion of directed commercial fisheries on a number of unmanaged forage species until there is sufficient supporting scientific analysis. The New England Fishery Management Council should follow the Mid-Atlantic’s lead in prioritizing better management of unmanaged forage fish.

Lastly, and apart from fisheries management, we can protect parts of our ocean that are of known ecological and scientific value. For Atlantic Puffins, recently released data shows that Cashes Ledge and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are important wintering grounds for the species. The benefits provided by protecting biodiverse areas such as these will be felt throughout the region.

Atlantic Puffin populations have come a long way in the last few decades. And although ecosystem-based fisheries management and habitat protection may not be a cure all, it’s something that we as humans can do to help sustain their progress.


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