Maine’s Atlantic puffin population has experienced a mix of good years and bad since the birds were recolonised to four islands off the Maine coast in the 1970s and 1980s. The seabird’s future is increasingly questionable with poor nesting success as in 2020 which was marginal and even worse in 2021. The causes are related to climate change – wetter summers and warming waters. Such factors will be far more difficult to overcome than those of the past.

Atlantic puffins with their bright orange feet and colourful parrot-like beaks are comical and endearing birds. Sometimes referred to as clowns of the sea, their survival is no laughing matter to the dedicated people who monitor the little sea birds during the nesting season on the four islands along Maine’s coast. Puffins had been nearly exterminated by 1900. A recolonisation effort, mounted in the 1970s and 1980s, successfully restored a small population. Now it looks as if Maine’s puffin population is once again threatened, this time by climate change and overfishing.

A Bird of Northern Latitudes

All three puffin species are found at latitudes where ocean temperatures range about 0 to 20 degrees Celsius. Horned and tufted puffins are found nested along the west of North America and spend the remainder of the year in the Pacific Ocean. The third species known as the Atlantic puffin is often found in waters off the northeastern coast of the United States and Canada, east to the Brittany Coast of France, and northward to Greenland, Iceland, and northern Russia. Atlantic puffins have been reported to be one of the most abundant seabirds in the North Atlantic Ocean with over half of them nesting in Iceland. 

Atlantic puffin’s were never abundant in Maine as the US state is at the extreme southern edge of the species’ range. Maine’s nesting population comprises less than one percent of the total worldwide population. Puffins spend much of their time at sea, returning to coastal cliffs in the spring and summer to lay their eggs. A single egg typically occupies the nest that is built in a rocky crevice or burrow. The bird digs the burrow by using its beak to break up the soil and its feet to clear the hole.

Maine’s Puffin Population on a Rollercoaster Ride

It is estimated that several hundred pairs of puffins nested on islands off Maine’s coast prior to 1860. Hunting, egg collecting, and other human intrusions led to the near eradication of these puffins. Two small populations managed to survive on Matinicus Rock and Seal Island where the birds were protected by lighthouse keepers living on the islands. 

In 1973, Steve Kress, an American ornithologist, started a project to reintroduce Atlantic Puffins to Maine where translocated chicks from Newfoundland, Canada to Eastern Egg Rock, Maine. Kress fed and cared for the young birds, and successfully raised chicks until they were old enough to leave their nests. It wasn’t until 1981 that adult puffins built a nest and successfully raised a chick. Prior to that, a total of 954 chicks were transplanted into artificial burrows. 

A similar project with 950 chick was conducted between 1984-1989 on another island. Egg Island was considered recolonised in 1992. With a limited distribution of only four islands and a small population, puffins were listed as a threatened species in Maine in 1997. All four, Petit Manan Island, Matinicus Rock, Seal Island, and Eastern Egg Rock are intensively managed to protect the birds from humans and predators, particularly great black-backed gulls. As puffins typically lay a single egg each year, the success of the breeding season can also be undermined by poor weather or fishing conditions. Fortunately, the survival of the population doesn’t rest on the nesting season of a single year because puffins are a long-lived bird. Adults have been identified living into 20 years. The oldest known individual was 36. However, Maine’s puffin population cannot withstand a series of poor nesting seasons.

From roughly 2004 until the present, there were good years and bad. It is estimated that only an average of 65% of puffin chicks survived each nesting season. And numbers continued to plummet in 2021 where only 25% of the nests successfully reared chicks. Seal Island had the best rate with a survival of 53%, while Machias Seal Island had the lowest survival with only 2%. It was a universally bad year in many ways across the Gulf of Maine. Wildlife biologists suggested that a prime contributing factor was the rise in water temperature. One consequence according to US Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist Linda Welch was that puffin chicks weren’t getting sufficient food. 

puffin populationImage by: Glen Hooper/Unsplash

Maine’s nesting puffins feed on small fish such as herring, sand lance, and hake. Puffins dive and use their wings to push themselves along and their feet as a rudder, before catching fish in their beaks. Specialised spines in the roof of the mouth secures the fish allowing the bird to catch multiple fish, on average around ten, before returning to the nest. However, as the waters around the islands warm, puffins may not be able to secure sufficient food to feed their chicks. Fish appear to be moving into cooler waters, deeper than the birds can dive or farther from the nesting islands than the birds can reasonably travel. “[Puffins] are kind of tied to the nests,” Don Lyons of the National Audubon Society’s Seabird Institute said. 

puffin populationWarming temperatures Gulf of Maine. Image by: National Geographic

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Challenges on Multiple Fronts

Since their recolonisation, it has been typical for two-thirds of puffin chicks to be successfully raised during the nesting season. In stark contrast, only a quarter to a third survived in 2021. Lyons characterised this survival rate as “strikingly poor.” Success in 2020 wasn’t much better. It was classified as only marginal. Poor survival was attributed in part to a lack of good food due to the warming waters in the Gulf of Maine. 

Another factor that contributed to the decline in certain fish species is overfishing. Maine’s commercial herring fishery fell 87.7% in five years, from more than 200 million pounds in 2014 to under 25 million pounds in 2019. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Herring Management Board has responded to the problem by limiting allowable hauls and in 2021 it closed the second half of the herring season. But such actions may be ineffective in the face of the negative effects of climate change. 

Herring is used as bait fish by Maine’s lobster fishing industry. Their demand alone is not enough to explain the decline in the herring population. The decline has forced both the lobster industry and adult puffins to find other species to replace the depleted herring. New subtropical species such as butterfish and rough scad are moving in to replace the herring as the water temperature in the Gulf of Maine increases. Unfortunately, these fish are not satisfactory substitutes for the puffin population. For example, puffin chicks are unable to swallow butterfish. Although the parents regularly return to the nest with fish, the chicks die from starvation. Lyons noted that in the case of scad the fish “aren’t particularly nutritious – their caloric density is not very high” as a result the chicks aren’t strong enough to overcome life’s challenges such as inclement weather. The weather in 2021 was also proven to be a severe challenge. Rainfall for the month of July was recorded as 18 inches, the highest in a hundred years. Many chicks died because they lacked the energy to keep warm. 

Puffins have always experienced a mix of good years and bad. After recolonising four islands in Maine, the puffin population have had their share of good and bad years. However, increasingly there seem to be more bad ones than good. Poor productivity in 2016 and 2018 has now been surpassed by worse years in 2020 and 2021. It’s a concern for those responsible for the birds’ conservation. Maine can issue regulations to manage herring fishery quotas, protect puffin nests from humans, among many things, but without addressing the trend for wetter summers and warming waters in the Gulf of Maine the continued presence of Atlantic puffins in Maine is in doubt.