Several dozen bodies of Atlantic puffins have washed up on the shores of the North Eastern United States this year and survival rates of newborn puffins have dropped from 77% to 31%. The dive in puffin population has scientists concerned for the future of the bird, which has so far been one of the most successful conservation stories known world-wide. The dead birds are causing scientists to look at the relationship between birds, fishing and climate change. Warmer water temperatures have changed the available food sources, according to the National Audobon Society.
Large numbers of butterfish were found near breeding grounds, many of them uneaten, indicating that butterfish were too large for puffin hatchlings to digest. The butterfish are native to a more southern area of the gulf than the traditional diet of herring, but have moved closer to the water’s surface, making them easier to catch. However, butterfish are also growing more rapidly from an increased rate of phytoplankton, which the fish eat. The increase in phytoplankton can come from warmer water due to climate change or be an early indicator of a dead zone, an area of water with too much oxygen from fertilizer runoff.
A hundred years ago, the Atlantic puffin was nearly extinct after being hunted for food and feathers. After a ban on wild bird hunting was implemented in 1918 and the Audobon Society worked to conserve the birds, the population grew. The islands off of Maine began seeing a trickle of the seabirds come to breed in the late 1970s, and today there are several large groups that return from the sea every spring, the largest being around 2,000 birds. In the last five years, however, the puffins have been declining faster than any other population of bird as the challenges to survival become more about the environment than falling prey to poachers.