I drove with Hansen to the north of Iceland to see what healthy puffins looked like. (For road music, he played Icelandic death metal songs about Norse gods.) Up there, the ocean is still cold, mackerel are still unheard-of, and the puffins are well fed.
At an island called Drangey, so many puffins were in the air that it was like some giant disco ball was projecting black specks on the cliff faces. They were carrying so many fish in their beaks they had trouble holding their heads up.
I talked to Viggó Jónsson, who runs puffin tours and also hunts several thousand a year from this island, catching them in nets and then breaking their necks with a quick wrenching motion of the hands.
Jónsson was the archetypal Viking, except wearing a tracksuit. His head was like a piece of blond granite. He led me down a fixed rope to an exposed cliff edge where he takes pictures of tourists for their Facebook pages. I asked him why he bothers to hunt puffins.
“That’s my livelihood,” he said. “Why should I stop? I’m fishing and I’m hunting guillemot, and I’m hunting a whale, that’s the story! I like to go here and take it here. That’s the reason I am an Icelander.”
His halting English just made him sound that much more monumental.
“Then I know what I am eating. You don’t know what you are eating when you eat the hamburger in USA. You don’t know!”
Does puffin taste good? Is that why you eat it?
“Yes, it’s very good tasting. It tastes like …” he turned away and yelled at his son for the translation.
His back was to the cliff edge and he was waving his arms about as he spoke. I tried to concentrate but I kept thinking about the 400 feet of air behind him and how I was about to watch a Viking fall backward from the best photo-op spot on Drangey. But of course he didn’t. He finished his sentence, kicked a nesting fulmar out of the way—it made a soft thump as shoe met feather—and climbed back up to safe ground.
“It tastes like minke whale,” he said.
We returned south to the Westman Islands, where I had volunteered to check on puffin nesting success using a lipstick camera on a cable. I stood on a foggy cliff and listened to the ocean beating against the cliffs of the next island. A few puffins stood in the grass and looked nervously at me.
This is the largest puffin colony in the world. There ought to be a chick in every other burrow getting fat on sand eels. And yet, as I snaked the camera cable into burrow after burrow, I saw dirt, rock, spider web, root. Some sheep dung. No chicks.
“The season went down the drain in the Westmans,” Hansen told me at the end of the summer. “Eighty percent of the birds abandoned their eggs. Only 4 percent [had chicks].”
During this year’s five-day hunting season, the reported catch was around 300, versus the islands’ long-term yearly hunting average of 76,000, according to Hansen. Not a single one of the puffins submitted to Hansen and his colleagues to assess their age was younger than 4. By and large, after years of breeding failures, those young birds just don’t exist. So I guess the hunters were right. Puffin hunting isn’t really the biggest problem for puffins on the Westman Islands right now.
It still seems insane that, while the next puffin generation is starving to death en masse, the No. 1 concern of some hunters is making sure they can still have smoked puffin at their big end-of-summer party.
Tradition, by definition, is a thing of the past. Tradition is absent-minded and overbearing.
At some point it becomes so ingrained that we can’t imagine a different way. Look no further than your Thanksgiving turkey.
Iceland is a nation of whalers and egg-stealers and puffin-eaters. Fair enough, but in the United States we keep animals in warehouse farms so that red meat can cost less than asparagus. Bluefin tuna are going extinct one set of chopsticks at a time. Ivory trinkets are a traditional sign of affluence in China; now that China is affluent, Asian and African elephants are being slaughtered.
So maybe eating puffin is barbaric. But maybe it’s time to take a page from the Vikings and start a rampage. Kill your idols? Kill your television? Kill your traditions.