The threat to the Atlantic puffin: With its global population dwindling, the lovable seabird faces an uncertain future


The Atlantic puffin, fratercula artica, is widespread, with breeding populations along Canada’s Atlantic coast, Maine, coastal Northern Europe and Iceland. However, many colonies have suffered a worrying decline in recent years.

The statistics do not paint a pretty picture. Erpur Snær Hansen, director of ecological research at the South Iceland Nature Centre fears that colonies in the south and west of country will be lost in the next two decades. In Norway, several colonies like that of Røst have failed to breed at all in the last few years. The population of 33,000, counted by the RSPB on the Scottish Island of Shetland in 2000, has crumbled to a mere 570. If their numbers keep falling at the same rate, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has warned that the species may go extinct within a century. Puffins always return to the same burrow to breed so a fall in colony population cannot mean puffins have simply moved somewhere else to breed.

The Atlantic puffin is classified as endangered in Europe, where 90% of the world population breeds. Iceland hosts 60% of the world population in the breeding season, more than any other country.

Sea temperatures, a key global warming indicator, have risen by 0.12 degrees Celsius per decade since 2000 according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Higher temperatures reduce the number of plankton, the food source for the sandeels and herring that constitute the puffins’ diet. Consequently, puffins are unable to find enough food due to the knock-on effects of changes to their food chain. During the breeding season this means chicks are undernourished and are more likely to die before, or shortly after, fledging.

Some Scandinavian puffins have been observed by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology going to the Atlantic Ocean rather than the North Sea in search of food. This is a long and arduous journey that can leave parents exhausted and chicks without food for length periods of time, increasing puffin mortality.

Climate change has also led to more extreme weather. Puffin burrows are usually on coastal cliffs so large waves caused by a storm can sweep puffins away as they are coming and going from their burrows. It is possible for the burrow to be flooded, killing the puffins inside. Storms also prevent puffins from leaving their burrow to find food so great numbers can die of starvation.

Humans routinely hunt puffins in Iceland, where the species has no legal protection and is often served in restaurants. On the Icelandic island of Grimsey, which has just 80 residents, up to 200 puffins can be caught daily. Large nets catch the puffins as they dive into the sea – a technique called sky-fishing.

There is a lack of quantitative evidence for how pollution threatens puffins, but it follows that damage to their food chain harms puffins too. Catastrophic events, such as the 1967 Torrey Canyon oil spill which reduced the French breeding population by 8.5%, shows that humans have the capability to decimate already faltering colonies.

The first obvious lesson from these issues is that climate change needs to be managed more effectively. Speaking in 2013, Professor Rebecca Holberton of the University of Maine called puffins “our marine canary in a coal mine”. The plight of the puffins is an early warning of the damage that climate change is capable of inflicting.

The second lesson is that if human activity continues as it is, Atlantic puffins are likely faced with extinction. However, major accidents like oil spills are avoidable with good management and smart regulation. The culture of hunting puffins in Iceland is now said to be at a sustainable level so the lesson has been well learnt by the islanders. Given this development, there is cause for hope that the rest of the world will take an active role in the conservation of puffins.

Off the coast of south west Pembrokeshire, in Wales, lies the tiny island of Skomer. Here, a moderately sized puffin colony of just over 25000 individuals is thriving, seemingly unaffected by the woes plaguing the rest of the world population. In the last 30 years, the Skomer population has quadrupled.

Skomer should be subject to the same problems as colonies elsewhere so the success of the colony is a puzzle. Research is being conducted by Oxford University and the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales to try and find out why. The work may give insight into how other colonies can be helped back to their feet.

Despite its growing numbers, Skomer’s colony faces its own unique set of challenges. The colony is a popular tourist attraction. Since puffin burrows can be on the edge of the tourist trail, there have been cases of visitors collapsing burrows by stepping off the path or by leaning on the verge. If Skomer wardens cannot open the burrow back up, the chick inside will starve. Puffins can also be blocked from entering their burrow by tourists standing in the way. Through ignorance and a lack of information, people are interfering with the one place on earth that may hold the key to the survival of the Atlantic puffin.

There are over 10 million adults globally, so the Atlantic puffin still has much hope. Society must not waste the time it has to halt the decline, which can only come from successful research and a much better stewardship of the ocean and coastal environment. This is becoming increasingly difficult amongst the ever-increasing chorus of climate change denial, but environmentalists must make themselves heard above the din, for the sake of this much-loved seabird.