NEW YORK, N.Y. -- A new study by the National Audubon Society demonstrates how puffin chicks reveal changes in forage fish communities. A paper published today in FACETS, shows connections between the condition and survival of puffin nestlings, climate change and commercial fisheries.
“There have been some good years and some bad years, but overall we’re seeing a decline in puffin chick body condition and this leads to fewer chicks surviving to breeding age,” says the paper’s co-author Dr. Stephen Kress, director of the Audubon Seabird Restoration Program and Project Puffin. “You can protect the islands where puffins nest, but that’s not enough if the forage fish and marine habitat are not protected as well.”
As part of this study, Atlantic Puffin populations and chick weights at three Maine islands were examined between 2005 and 2014. Because puffins return to breed at the same island each summer, they are good indicators for changes in forage fish species. Kress and co-authors Paula Shannon, Audubon Seabird Sanctuary Manager, and Christopher O’Neal, Senior Model Validation Analyst & Statistician at Synovus, liken a puffin colony to “a community-based fishery that fishes near home, samples nearby waters and is vulnerable to local conditions.”
Kress and his team began to notice drastic changes in puffin diets in recent years. White hake, a cold water fish, is by far the most common fish delivered to puffin chicks, but these fish are shifting northward as the Gulf of Maine warms. Atlantic herring, the second most important forage fish, has also recently declined in puffin diets. Meanwhile, butterfish, a warm water species, has increased, but large butterfish are often too large for the chicks to swallow, resulting in starvation. This was especially obvious in 2012, the warmest water year ever recorded for the Gulf of Maine.
“Puffin chicks can only fit certain sizes and shapes of fish into their beaks,” says Kress. “They have to swallow them whole, because parents haven’t evolved the behavior to tear them up. It’s much easier for chicks to swallow narrow-bodied species like white hake than larger, oval-shaped species like butterfish.”
Warming sea temperatures have impacted fish populations in recent years. Yet, fisheries have also increasingly become better at detecting and capturing fish. For example, 100,000 metric tons of herring—about 1.5 billion individual fish—are removed from New England waters every year, mostly for lobster bait. This reduces the fish available for the marine mammals, puffin chicks, and other seabirds that depend on these foods. But well-managed commercial fisheries, such as haddock and redfish, can benefit people and wildlife as well. The study points out that these fish, which are harvested at sustainable levels, are now showing up in puffin chick diets.
“Puffins are great survivors,” says Kress. “They live in the wilds of the open ocean, swimming in 100-foot waves. If we ensure that they have ample food of the right size, shape and nutrition, they are more likely to be able to adapt to climate change.”
Kress hopes to continue this research over the coming years, using long-term monitoring of fish populations to better understand the effects of climate change and commercial fisheries on forage fish. Earlier this year, Project Puffin biologists discovered that puffins winter at the edge of the continental shelf about 200 miles southeast of Cape Cod. Kress hopes that these puffins will benefit from designation of the area known as Coral Canyons as the first National Marine Monument in the Atlantic.
Once common along Maine’s coast, Atlantic Puffins disappeared due to hunting and egg collecting in the 1800s. Since 1973, Audubon’s Project Puffin, pioneered by Kress, has restored breeding Atlantic Puffins and other seabirds to seven islands off the coast of Maine. Today, the program has reestablished more than 1,000 puffin pairs in the region. For more information and updates about ongoing efforts to help Atlantic Puffins, visit http://www.audubon.org/conservation/project/project-puffin
The National Audubon Society saves birds and their habitats throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education and on-the-ground conservation. Audubon's state programs, nature centers, chapters and partners have an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire and unite diverse communities in conservation action. Since 1905, Audubon's vision has been a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Audubon is a nonprofit conservation organization. Learn more at www.audubon.org and @audubonsociety.
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