The Most Adorable Victims of Climate Change: Puffin Chicks in Maine

A journalistic collaboration on climate change.
June 2 2014 1:43 PM

The Puffin Cam Will Break Your Heart

Will this year’s chicks be able to choke down strange new fish from the Gulf of Maine?

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The weirdness continued. In the spring of 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made its semiannual trawl survey of the Gulf of Maine, dragging a net at dozens of points throughout the Gulf and counting, weighing, and measuring everything caught. There were plenty of butterfish and mountains of spiny dogfish, a small shark that used to be relatively rare in the Gulf of Maine but now owns the place. There were very few cod, the fish that made New England, that lured thousands of fishing boats from Europe, that fed millions of people over the centuries. NOAA slashed the 2013 quota for cod to a pittance, putting hundreds of enraged fishermen out of work.

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.

By the time of that announcement, Project Puffin was starting its 2013 season. With spring temperatures closer to normal, Kress had hoped that his Seal Island puffins would return to their fruitful ways, but only two-thirds of the colony showed up. Still, a new chick was chosen for the puffin cam feed, and viewers named her Hope. For a while, all went well. Kress saw fewer butterfish being delivered, and Hope flourished. But soon Kress noticed that fewer birds than usual were hanging out at the Loafing Ledge, a rocky ridge where the parents socialize between feedings. Then he realized that the time between chick feedings was considerably longer than normal. The puffins were having to range much farther to find fish.

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Too far, as it turned out. Although Hope successfully fledged on August 21, she was one of the few lucky ones. Only 10 percent of the puffin chicks survived in 2013—the worst year on record. “We’ve never seen two down years like this,” Kress told me. “The puffins really tanked.”

And how could they not? The Gulf of Maine, the great food processor of the western Atlantic, was almost out of food.

Usually, a system as large and complex as the Gulf of Maine, sloshing with natural noise and randomness, will disappoint any human desire to fit it into a tidy narrative. It can take years to tease a clear trend out of the data. But by late 2013, things were so skewed that you could see the canaries dropping everywhere you looked.

Nov. 30: Researchers announced that instead of the dozens of endangered right whales they normally spot in the Gulf of Maine during their fall aerial survey, they had spotted ... one. They were quick to note that the whales couldn’t all be dead, just missing—probably off in search of food. Sure enough, in January 2014, 12 of the same species of whale were spotted in Cape Cod Bay, where food is more plentiful.

By now, you’ll have no trouble filling in this sentence from the Dec. 4 Portland Press Herald: “This summer, a survey indicated that the northern shrimp stock was at its ____ ____ since the annual trawl survey began in 1984.” That’s right: lowest level. In fact, the sweet Gulf of Maine shrimp—a closely guarded secret in New England—had collapsed so completely that regulators closed the 2014 season and warned of “little prospect of recovery in the near future.” It takes shrimp four to five years to reach harvest size, and few of the shrimp born in the Gulf of Maine since 2009 have survived. If shrimp miraculously produce a bumper crop this year, there might be a few to eat in 2018. In the meantime, throw some butterfish on the barbie.

Or maybe sailfish or cobia, two Florida species hooked by bewildered New England anglers in 2013. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute scrambled to find a bright side, publishing a paper on the commercial potential of former Virginia standbys like black sea bass, longfin squid, and scup, which are new regulars in the gulf. Admirable adaptability, and undoubtedly a few quick-moving fishermen will profit from the regime change. But I don’t relish life in a world where only the hyperadapters survive.

“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?” he asks), headed 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. 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.

The puffin cam is below. Petey’s parents laid a new egg on May 16, which is a normal egg date and a promising start to the season.

Rowan Jacobsen has written for the New York Times, Newsweek, Harper’s, and others, and his work has been anthologized in The Best American Science and Nature Writing.

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