Puffins by Brian Gratwicke via Flickr

Puffins by Brian Gratwicke \ CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

There’s perhaps no seabird more iconic to the Maritimes than the Atlantic puffin, a bird as modest and beautiful as the region itself.

At first glance this seabird resembles the penguins of Antarctica, with a black back and white underbelly, but what sets the Atlantic puffin apart is the spectacular colouration of its bill and face, which blossom with sharps reds, yellows and blues during mating season. When the season ends, however, this rainbow beak sheds much of its bulk and becomes a dull, uniform grey. This transformation is so dramatic it was originally thought the Atlantic puffin was two separate species.

The Atlantic puffin is a poor flier, beating its wings 300-400 times a minute just to stay airborne. They’re even prone to crash landings. But what they lack in flight, they make up for at sea. The puffin spends the majority of its life in water, either floating on the waves or diving to extreme depths in pursuit of its fishy food. Its wings are used as powerful flippers and it can snatch several dozen fish with each dive.

The exploitation of these adorable mariners began in the 1600s and took the usual forms.

The exploitation of these adorable mariners began in the 1600s and took the usual forms. We hunted them for their meat, fat and feathers; we destroyed their breeding groups and robbed their burrows of eggs; we introduced invasive pests like feral cats and rats to their remote island colonies; we even caught scores of them with our fishing gear, first by accident and later on purpose.

It’s nearly impossible to tell how abundant puffins used to be on the east coast, but they certainly numbered in the millions. 365,000 breeding pairs is the best modern estimate I could find, encompassing colonies from northern Maine to the Canadian Arctic. Approximately 60 per cent of those 365,000 pairs are found on three islands in Witless Bay, Newfoundland, about half an hour south of St. John’s.

There are smaller colonies dotting the east coast, ranging from the 10,000 puffins nesting on Machias Seal Island in New Brunswick to the few hundred living across the entire province of Nova Scotia, mainly on Cape Breton and on Pearl Island in Lunenburg County.

We don’t hunt them anymore. We don’t touch their eggs or fish irresponsibly in their waters, but there’s still something very insidious taking place in the aforementioned island reserves, something which is claiming the lives of thousands of puffin babies and putting the species at risk.

They’re starving to death.

The stomachs of recently deceased babies were filled with gravel and dirt, a sure sign of starvation.

This phenomena was first observed in the 1960s in Norway, with its coastal islands home to one of the largest colonies of Atlantic puffin in the world. Fewer and fewer babies were surviving each year, culminating in a 99.9 per cent mortality rate by 1977. The stomachs of recently deceased babies were filled with gravel and dirt, a sure sign of starvation.

This tragedy was linked to the collapse of fish stocks, namely herring, due to overfishing in the region. Similar drops in survival rates were observed in the 1980s in Witless Bay following the collapse of capelin stocks. Now with climate change warming the oceans and remaining fish stocks migrating to cooler waters, puffin parents are left with no fish small enough to feed their children.

Only in the last couple years, starvation has been observed among puffins in both Maine and New Brunswick, a terrifying testament to the state of our coast.

For the sake of this seabird, Atlantic Canada must do its part to encourage sustainable fishing practices and to combat climate change. Either that or, heaven forbid, we stop using the Atlantic puffin in our tourism ads.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of Shades of Green. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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