Every summer for the past 40 years, Audubon researchers camp out on several small, scenic islands off the coast of Maine to monitor puffins, terns, and other seabirds as they raise their chicks. This year, the number of surviving pufflings—yes, Atlantic Puffin chicks are called pufflings—sadly plummeted. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, and this year Don Lyons, director of conservation science for Audubon’s Seabird Institute, says climate change delivered Atlantic Puffins a “double-whammy.”
Warming waters are driving away puffins’ favorite food like herring, leaving many puffin parents to rely more on butterfish to feed their chicks—a fish that’s too big for young pufflings to swallow. Some puffin chicks unfortunately died in their burrows surrounded by butterfish they couldn’t eat, while many that survived were far skinnier than normal, healthy chicks. On top of that, tropical storms that occurred earlier than normal kept them wet and cold as they were hatching. As a result, the number of pufflings that fledged from their nests dropped to half of normal levels.
Atlantic Puffins aren’t the only coastal birds affected by extreme weather this year. Further south, Piping Plovers lost most of their nests on Connecticut beaches over Memorial Day weekend, as high tides and stormy weather swept many of their eggs and chicks out to sea. And in Seattle, Caspian Tern chicks leapt to their deaths in an attempt to escape the record-breaking heat on their rooftop nesting location in June.
Seabirds are tough, long-lived birds that have evolved to survive a harsh life at sea. However, climate change is delivering so many blows to these birds that some populations are now struggling to survive. Sea- and shorebirds have already declined by 70 percent in recent decades, due in part to climate change but also habitat loss and overfishing. A pair of bills in Washington aims to tackle all three of these issues at once.
Just this week, Rep. Jared Huffman (CA) held a hearing on the Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act, which would update and improve the country’s only federal fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
For the past 40 years, the Magnuson-Stevens Act has helped recover 45 ocean fish populations and ensured that overfishing is at an all-time low. Though we celebrate this success, this law does not yet factor in the important role that small, schooling fish like herring play in the ocean as food for seabirds and other marine life. This leaves forage fish vulnerable to overfishing, which can hurt the predators like seabirds that rely on them for food.
To right this wrong, this bill will account for the needs of seabirds and other predators when deciding how many forage fish can be caught. It will also factor climate change into our fisheries management process, and protect coastal habitats like seagrass beds that both birds and fish rely on. It also includes all of the provisions of the Forage Fish Conservation Act, another piece of legislation covered in this week’s hearing that Audubon members and staff have advocated for to ensure seabirds have plenty of fish to eat.
At the hearing this week, Willy Goldsmith with the American Saltwater Guides Association emphasized that updating this law for the future will help not only our wildlife but also the coastal communities and economies that depend on a healthy ocean.
“Fishery stakeholders are acutely observing the impacts of a warming ocean,” Goldsmith said in his testimony. “The most readily visible consequences to fishermen and managers alike are shifting stocks: The center of biomass for black sea bass, a commercial and recreational mainstay along the east coast, has shifted northward about 200 miles over the past half-century.”
Likewise Goldsmith explained that catches of cod in the Gulf of Maine are down, because fishery managers there failed to adjust catch limits as cod struggled to reproduce in the warming waters. The Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act will help communities like those in Maine respond more quickly to a rapidly changing ocean.
This year Audubon’s Seabird Institute celebrated 40 years since the first puffin was recorded delivering a fish to its pufflings in a burrow under the giant granite slabs of Eastern Egg Rock. This moment signified the first time a seabird was restored to an island where humans had wiped it out, as hunting had almost completely eliminated Atlantic Puffins from Maine in the late 1800s. Now climate change threatens to undermine the last 40 years of success and hard work, unless we act.