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It's Been a Tough Year for Puffins on Machias Seal Island

An adult Puffin on Eastern Egg Rock, with a haul of young  Acadian Redfish in its beak.
Jean Hall
An adult Puffin on Eastern Egg Rock, with a haul of young Acadian Redfish in its beak.

The biggest Atlantic Puffin colony in the Gulf of Maine is having a tough year. Scientists studying puffin on Machias Seal Island say almost 90% of chicks born there this summer have died - and they expect the rest won’t live out the year.

The island - where both the U.S. and Canada claim sovereignty - is home to some 5,500 nesting pairs of puffins, the colorful seabirds which have made a comeback since their near extirpation in the Gulf of Maine a century ago.

Dr. Tony Diamond, of the University of New Brunswick’s Atlantic Laboratory for Avian Research, says some feed-stocks, such as hake or herring, either did not show up in large enough numbers, or were avoiding warming surface waters by swimming deeper than adult puffins can dive.

“By the end of the season a lot of chicks had died, apparently from starvation,” says Diamond. “A lot of chicks had been depredated - when they are hungry they come out of their burrows to look for an adult to bring them food and they are vulnerable to being taken by gulls or ravens or something like that.”

Diamond says that adult puffin turned to unusual species, such as squid, krill, and even earth worms, to try to keep their young alive - but the nutritional value and volume of those hauls were comparatively low. This year’s chick deaths, he says, echo the previous worst year, 2013, when about 15 percent of chicks lived long enough to fledge and head out to sea on their own.

“And this year it was 12%. And those that did fledge I think will not survive,” Diamond says. “I don’t expect any puffins recruiting back to this breeding colony from this cohort, because I don’t think they are in good enough condition to survive.”

But for colonies farther south, which did see some heavy chick die-offs in previous years, it seems to be a different story this summer.

Dr. Stephen Kress directs the Audobon Society’s Project Puffin, which has re-established colonies on several Maine islands - Matinicus Rock and Seal Island off Vinalhaven, and Eastern Egg Rock, off Bremen. More than half of the chicks hatched on all three islands have made it to sea or will soon head out, Kress says.

Puffin chicks on Matinicus Rock, he says, appeared particularly plump and healthy, because their parents were able to exploit rebounding populations of once endangered Acadian Redfish – ocean perch to consumers.

“It’s a great example of good fisheries policy that’s helping a fish come back and it’s making all the difference for the puffins,” says Kress. “In an era of climate change when there’s so many other stresses, good fisheries management that favors commercial fish that help fishermen and seabirds just makes all the sense in the world to me.”

He also notes that puffins can live 30 years and more - so the population has some resilience against a bad breeding year. But there are concerns about food sources for future generations of puffin. Scientists at Portland’s Gulf of Maine Research Institute, meanwhile, say water temperatures in the Gulf this year are on track to be the second highest on record.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.