Something Is Seriously Wrong on the East Coast—and It's Killing All the Baby Puffins

Something Is Seriously Wrong on the East Coast—and It's Killing All the Baby Puffins



"THE NEW POSTER CHILD for climate change had his coming-out party in June 2012, when Petey the puffin chick first went live into thousands of homes and schools all over the world. The "Puffin Cam" capturing baby Petey's every chirp had been set up on Maine's Seal Island by Stephen Kress, "The Puffin Man," who founded the Audubon Society's Project Puffin in 1973. Puffins, whose orange bills and furrowed eyes make them look like penguins dressed as sad clowns, used to nest on many islands off the Maine coast, but 300 years of hunting for their meat, eggs, and feathers nearly wiped them out. Project Puffin transplanted young puffins from Newfoundland to several islands in Maine, and after years of effort the colonies were reestablished and the project became one of Audubon's great success stories. By 2013, about 1,000 puffin pairs were nesting in Maine.

Now, thanks to a grant from the Annenberg Foundation, the Puffin Cam offered new opportunities for research and outreach. Puffin parents dote on their single chick, sheltering it in a two-foot burrow beneath rocky ledges and bringing it piles of small fish each day. Researchers would get to watch live puffin feeding behavior for the first time, and schoolkids around the world would be falling for Petey.

But Kress soon noticed that something was wrong. Puffins dine primarily on hake and herring, two teardrop-shaped fish that have always been abundant in the Gulf of Maine. But Petey's parents brought him mostly butterfish, which are shaped more like saucers. Kress watched Petey repeatedly pick up butterfish and try to swallow them. The video is absurd and tragic, because the butterfish is wider than the little gray fluff ball, who keeps tossing his head back, trying to choke down the fish, only to drop it, shaking with the effort. Petey tries again and again, but he never manages it. For weeks, his parents kept bringing him butterfish, and he kept struggling. Eventually, he began moving less and less. On July 20, Petey expired in front of a live audience. Puffin snuff.

"When he died, there was a huge outcry from viewers," Kress tells me. "But we thought, 'Well, that's nature.' They don't all live. It's normal to have some chicks die." Puffins successfully raise chicks 77 percent of the time, and Petey's parents had a good track record; Kress assumed they were just unlucky. Then he checked the other 64 burrows he was tracking: Only 31 percent had successfully fledged. He saw dead chicks and piles of rotting butterfish everywhere. "That," he says, "was the epiphany."

Why would the veteran puffin parents of Maine start bringing their chicks food they couldn't swallow? Only because they had no choice. Herring and hake had dramatically declined in the waters surrounding Seal Island, and by August, Kress had a pretty good idea why: The water was much too hot.

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Like much of the country, the Northeast experienced the warmest March on record in 2012, and the year just stayed hot after that. Records weren't merely shattered; they were ground into dust. Temperatures in the Gulf of Maine, which has been warming faster than almost any other marine environment on Earth, shot far higher than anyone had ever recorded, and the place's personality changed. The spring bloom of phytoplankton occurred exceptionally early, before most animals were ready to take advantage of it. Lobsters shifted toward shore a month ahead of schedule, leading to record landings and the lowest prices in 18 years.

Hake and herring, meanwhile, got the hell out of Dodge, heading for cooler waters. In all, at least 14 Gulf of Maine fish species have been shifting northward or deeper in search of relief. That left the puffins little to feed their chicks except butterfish, a more southerly species that has recently proliferated in the Gulf. Butterfish have also been growing larger during the past few years of intense warmth, and that, thinks Stephen Kress, might be a key. "Fish start growing in response to changes in water temperature and food," he says. "The earlier that cycle starts, the bigger they're gonna be. What seems to have happened in 2012 is that the butterfish got a head start on the puffins. If it was a little smaller, the butterfish might actually be a fine meal for a puffin chick. But if it's too big, then it's just the opposite. That's one of the interesting things about climate change. It's the slight nuances that can have huge effects on species."

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In recent history, the average ocean surface temperature of the Gulf of Maine has hovered around 44 degrees Fahrenheit. 2013 was the second-warmest year in the Gulf in three decades, with an average surface temperature of 46.6 degrees. But it was nowhere near the freakish spike to 47.5 degrees in 2012, and the phytoplankton did not repeat its crazy early bloom. Instead, it didn't bloom at all. "So poorly developed, its extent was below detection limits" was how NOAA put it in its Ecosystem Advisory, sounding surprisingly calm, considering it was saying the marine equivalent of "No grass sprouted in New England this year." Phytoplankton feeds some tiny fish and shrimp directly, but more often it feeds zooplankton, the bugs of the sea, and these in turn feed everything from herring to whales. The undetectable phytoplankton bloom did not bode well for zooplankton, and sure enough, that spring NOAA broke the grim news: "The biomass of zooplankton was the lowest on record." Even this dirge doesn't do justice to the dramatic deviation from the organisms' historical norm: Their numbers bounced along in a comfortable range for 35 years before taking a gut-wrenching nosedive in 2013.

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"A puffin is an excellent example of a specialist bird that is going to be vulnerable to climate change," Kress says. "For a specialist bird like a warbler or a seabird, which relies on a small range of foods but lives in a vast area, if something goes wrong anywhere in the migratory range of that bird, it's in big trouble. And its ability to adapt is less than a bird with a more generalist lifestyle like a gull or a crow. Those highly adaptive birds are going to have the advantage in the long run. We see that vividly with the pictures of Petey trying to wolf down that oversized butterfish. It's scary. But it's a glimpse into a possible future."

Or present. We tend to think of climate change as incremental and inexorable, like seeing old friends age at the annual reunion. There are some new wrinkles, a step has been lost, and you know there's no going back, but at least you can still look forward to years of friendship. But ecosystems are wired with tipping points. A tweak here and there can make things unrecognizable tomorrow. Glaciers melt. Forests ignite. And suddenly your old pal isn't answering her phone anymore.

Yes, we can adapt. Us and the gulls and the rats. But it will be awfully lonely out there.

For 40 years, Stephen Kress has traveled to the same Maine islands each spring, has watched the same puffin couples return year after year to raise their chicks. Now he doesn't know what to think. "I've seen colonies go up and down, and I know one year doesn't make a pattern, but you can't help but wonder. We've worked decades to build those populations up, and in 2013 we lost a third. That's pretty dramatic."

Still, Kress, who calls himself a perennial optimist ("Who else would start Project Puffin?"), will head back out this May, on the heels of this winter's cold snap. He plans to outfit a few birds with GPS devices in hopes of finding the key places where they feed and overwinter. Perhaps there are new refuges to be found, places just a little colder or more resilient, where a puffin can still be a puffin. In May, the Puffin Cam will go live, a new chick will get a new name, and a fresh batch of schoolkids will tune in to get a look at their brave new world.

End of excerpt



Puffin Cam:
Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

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Imagine the urgency and frustration of the puffin's parents as they frantically searched for food day after day that their baby could eat but finding none. Then watching it die. How would you feel if that were your child?

The web of life is so fragile. Even the slightest changes in temperature can effect an entire species and that leads up to and effects others. As oceans continue to warm and acidify the link we all share becomes that much more tenuous. Sentient beings are aware of the suffering being exacted upon other species due to their actions. It bothers them. It makes them want to do something about it. The puffin may well be unimportant to many but in the scheme of life it is just as important as any other link in the chain.

Posting the links to these stories and giving comment is not easy. I don't know what to write anymore. I cry for the losses we are seeing in a world that is so awesome and beautiful. I am angry at those who continue to make this about them, or deny, or use it for gain. The world we see unfolding before us is one that we could have had an immense influence on if we were those sentient beings on the whole. That I think is what frustrates and saddens me most of all. To know that as a species we have in us the ability to make a utopia on Earth and that we choose not to. That we chose to gloss over these stories to go to the celebrity news of the day. That we choose to continue to behave in ways that are counterproductive to the reason for us and all other links in the chain being here.

We are now close to the point that what we have taken away will never be replaced. Our children and theirs won't see it. They won't experience the wonders we did. They will ask, what were puffins? What were polar bears? What happened? What will your answer be?



Also see:

Ocean Acidity Is Dissolving Shells Of Tiny Snails Off U.S. West Coast

The Oceans Warmed Up Sharply in 2013

The Ocean Is Broken

Thousands Of Starfish Melting On the Ocean Floor Off Pacific West Coast

Oceans In Critical State From Cumulative Impacts

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