Puffin Colonies Are Crashing. Quick! Let’s Hunt Them.

The state of the universe.
Jan. 7 2014 12:45 PM

What Does a Puffin Taste Like?

The answer is even worse than the question.

Three puffins on the ledge.
The Atlantic puffin—a seabird so cute it has been all but trademarked by the Icelandic tourist industry.

Photo by Chris Linder

The country of Iceland is little more than a dot of lava lost in salt spray at the edge of the Arctic Circle. Parts of it are still steaming. Whole swaths are reminiscent of something from the Oort cloud. And yet, ringing the edges of the country are verdant meadows, cavorting seals, breaching whales, and seabirds gibbering in their multitudes. Hot water bubbles out of the ground for free. It seems like some kind of environmental paradise.

Or it did before I learned the bad news about the Atlantic puffin—a seabird so cute it has been all but trademarked by the Icelandic tourist industry. For the past nine years, puffins have had almost complete breeding failure over the southern half of Iceland, including in the world’s largest colony, in the Westman Islands. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of failed nests each year.

So it was a shock to find out that the biggest puffin debate in Iceland this summer was over whether to keep hunting them.

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By 2011 and 2012, breeding failures had taken such a toll that puffin hunting was banned in the Westman Islands. Some scientists recommended making the ban nationwide. But in 2013 a vocal minority grew restless and petitioned for the season to be reopened.

“They were getting frantic about not hunting for so many years,” said Erpur Hansen, a biologist at the South Island Nature Centre who has been studying the puffins’ decline. “It’s understandable; it’s a culture for these guys. But it’s simple: It’s a nonsustainable harvest.”

The hunters’ argument was crushingly straightforward:

  1.     There are so few young puffins around that it will be hard to catch them.
  2.     That means a hunting season will have no discernible effect on puffin numbers.   
  3.     Ergo, hunting should be allowed.

If that sort of logic makes a screeching sound in your head, it’s just the collision between the way things have always been and the way things are now. A symptom of the insane human ability to ignore a calamity just because it interferes with tradition.

But killing puffins? They’re one of the few species the non-binocular-wearing public can get excited about. Squat little guys in orange gumboots with fish crammed in their beaks. They weigh about a pound with all their feathers on. To us, eating them is grotesque. In Iceland, they’ve been a source of protein for 1,000 years.

Maybe you have to be Icelandic to get why. The country was settled by Vikings so cantankerous they were chased out of Norway by other Vikings. They were like the guys in the death metal band who got kicked out for being too satanic. These renegades settled in turf houses and developed a cuisine around sheep, dried fish, and seabirds. Every winter it goes dark for several months, except when volcanoes are erupting. In short, Icelanders have developed something of an iron will toward nature.

The town council voted to allow a five-day puffin-hunting season at the end of July.

That month I went puffin hunting with Hansen and his friend Marino Sigursteinsson, an ex-hunter. It was a strictly catch-and-release mission; they wanted to attach tracking devices that would tell them where the birds went in winter.

The Westman Islands are a group of small volcanoes thrusting their summits out of the ocean, ringed with sheer cliffs and topped with thick, green grass. Thousands of seabirds—fulmars, guillemots, razorbills—cling to the cliffs to nest. The puffins dig winding burrows into the grass on top. About 4,000 people and 1.6 million puffins live here.

A stiff breeze was blowing sheets of rain out of the west. We walked down vertiginous sheep meadows to where the slick, wet turf gave way to thin air. “Don’t slip here,” Hansen said, “It will be like a bobsled.” Sigursteinsson tied a single strand of safety rope around his waist and gave the other end to Hansen. The rain pelted down onto his bony head. He laid his net, a big thing with a 12-foot handle, in the grass and looked over the edge for his prey.

A steady trickle of puffins flew past a couple hundred yards out to sea, banked into the wind, and flapped slowly along the edge of the cliff. Sigursteinsson just had to wait for them to come within reach and he would flip his net up and snag them.

Puffins on Drangey Island.
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.

Photo by Chris Linder

Official records indicate that in an average year, hunters in Iceland catch at least 260,000 puffins by this method, and about a quarter of those come from the Westman Islands. (Hansen has estimated that under-reporting is as much as 50 percent.) Thousands are eaten during a single, giant, century-old music festival in August; many more are smoked and saved for winter; others are put on menus alongside cormorant, guillemot, and whale, to titillate the tourists.

Most of the birds that get caught are young—2 to 4 year olds. They’re naïve and, lacking nests of their own, they don’t have much else to do but fly around in circles. They’re much easier to catch than breeding adults, and this quirk has helped keep the puffin hunt sustainable over the years. Puffins 4 years old and younger make up at least 70 percent of the catch. The ones that avoid the nets can live well into their 30s, breeding each year. 

But our hunt didn’t quite go as planned. After an hour, only three puffins had flown within range of Sigursteinsson’s net, and each one had dodged it as it came up. Mostly there was just a yawning absence of young puffins in the air, which sooner or later will translate into a yawning absence of adult puffins making nests.

The problem in Iceland is similar to what happened in Maine in 2012, when warmer waters pushed the birds’ main food fish, herring, out of reach and caused dozens of puffin chicks to starve. In the North Atlantic, warmer currents have brought mackerel north to Iceland in previously unheard-of numbers—from zero in the early 2000s to more than 1 million tons today. They’re too big for the puffins to eat, and they’ve upset the food chain and caused the birds’ main food, sandeels, to crash. The difference is one of scale: there are only about 2,000 puffins in all of Maine. In Iceland I saw six times that many in a single afternoon.

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.

Viggó Jónsson.
Viggó Jónsson runs puffin tours and also hunts several thousand a year.

Photo by Chris Linder

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.       

Chris Linder is a science and conservation photographer based in Seattle.

Hugh Powell is a science writer and editor interested in birds, oceans, and the outdoors. He works at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Follow him on Twitter.

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