PETIT MANAN — This past year was a particularly bad one for the young Atlantic puffins that nest on Maine’s coastal islands.
For the last 17 years, an average of 65 percent of puffin chicks would survive the season and leave the state’s seabird colonies. Those figures plummeted in 2021, according to experts. This season, an average of 25 percent of puffin pairs were able to raise chicks. Seal Island had one of the best rates, at 53 percent; Petit Manan was at about 10 percent; Matinicus Rock was at 34 percent; and Machias Seal Island was at 2 percent.
“This year was kind of universally bad across the entire Gulf of Maine,” said Linda Welch, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees several seabird colonies.
Welch and other biologists say two main factors contributed to the dismal year. One is that the warming gulf has made it harder for puffins and other seabirds to find the fish they feed their young.
“They simply weren’t getting sufficient food,” she said.
Puffins are partial to hake, sand lance and herring. But these fish seem to be moving farther down or farther out in the gulf, making it harder for puffins to find them. Puffins can only fly so far away from their nests and can only swim so deep in search of fish.
“They are kind of tied to the nests on those islands,” said Don Lyons, the director of conservation science at the National Audubon Society’s Seabird Institute.
The birds resorted to other species such as butterfish, an oily and high-calorie fish that could provide a lot of energy if baby puffins could actually fit them in their mouths. Puffins eat their prey whole, which makes the deep-bodied butterfish often impossible for a young puffin chick to swallow.
The second factor was this year’s unusually wet July, right around the time seabird chicks start to hatch. There were a couple of large storms around July 4 and then Tropical Storm Elsa brought a deluge to the area.
“A lot of chicks died just from exposure during those storms,” said Lyons.
This was especially harmful to terns, which also had poor survival rates this year, because they nest on open ground and don’t have the ability to keep themselves warm in these cold and wet storms.
Both issues are linked to climate change, said Lyons. The Gulf of Maine has warmed faster than 99 percent of the oceans on earth. Fish are moving into colder waters and storms are becoming more frequent and more intense.
“Elsa was the fifth named storm of the season, and it was the earliest that a fifth named storm had occurred,” Lyons said.
The combination of poor food sources and earlier storm season is a cocktail for disaster. If the chicks were better fed, they would have a better chance of surviving storms. If the storms came later, the chicks would have a better chance of being able to fatten up to handle colder temperatures.
“The fact that these things both hit in the same year was kind of a double whammy,” Lyons said.
Though 2021 wasn’t good, one bad year won’t be the end of the puffins. The birds can live into their 30s, giving them ample time to lay more eggs. But the ratio of good years to bad seems to be shifting more in the latter’s favor.
There were poor productivity rates in 2016 and 2018, and now it’s almost more likely to have a good year interspersed with a number of bad years than the other way around.
“The warning flags are there, so now is really the time to act, to hold on to these iconic species that we have here in Maine,” Lyons said.
He advised changes to cut emissions, more renewable energy resources and strong management of the herring fishery and seabird colonies.
Maine is the southern tip of the Atlantic puffin’s range. Tourists and locals delight in seeing them at the offshore islands on sightseeing tours out of Bar Harbor and Stonington. Petit Manan and Seal Island are both on tour boat itineraries.
In the past two years, more than 21,000 people have taken the tour out of Bar Harbor.
“Puffins are a good way for people to learn about seabird conservation and research,” said Julie Taylor, the lead naturalist for Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company. “They really do open up an opportunity for people to learn about the Gulf of Maine ecosystem and seabirds.”
But Welch worries that if the gulf continues to warm, the species may start to disappear in the U.S.
“These are cold water dependent species and it’s concerning that the habitat might not be suitable for them to occur in the Gulf of Maine in the future,” she said.