Climate Change is Killing the Puffins We Fought So Hard to Save
In the early 1970s, the Audubon Society launched Project Puffin. Three centuries of hunting puffins for their meat, eggs and feathers had nearly wiped these adorable animals off the planet, and led by Stephen Kress, “The Puffin Man,” conservationists decided to do something about it.
Over several decades, Project Puffin transplanted young puffins from Newfoundland to several suitable islands off the coast of Maine. By 2013, nearly 1,000 puffin couples were setting into their new home quite nicely. It was a huge victory, and many involved thought the Puffins were finally safe.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Researchers recently noticed something very strange about how puffin parents were taking care of their young. Instead of bringing offspring the tiny hake and herring (small teardrop shaped fish) they’re known to love, puffins were observed dropping off butterfish, which are round and almost bigger than the tiny grey puffin babies. Needless to say, the young birds couldn’t eat it, and some began to starve to death – on camera.
This was more than survival of the fittest. It wasn’t that baby puffins didn’t want to eat the butterfish, they simply couldn’t. So why were their parents suddenly changing the menu and inadvertently killing their young? The sad answer is that they had no other choice.
As Kress and his colleagues told Mother Jones reporter Rowan Jacobsen, hake and herring have all but disappeared from the Gulf of Maine. Why? Climate change.
“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.”
Like canaries in a coal mine, the plight of the puffins is just another way Mother Earth is trying, desperately, to show us that all is not well. Multiple studies have predicted that in addition to the drought, wildfire and warming oceans, climate change is likely to trigger massive migrations as species try desperately to adapt. In addition to the fish and puffin saga, this behavior has already been noticed, with generally negative results, among monarch butterfly, sea turtle and zebra populations. Some say this expansion into unfamiliar territory is likely to create ‘traffic jams‘ that create even bigger ecological problems as they compete (with us) for space and resources.
“Using a model of how electricity finds the path of least resistance when traveling across circuit boards, researchers were able to predict which regions will become animal superhighways in a time of climate change (interestingly many of them are places where animals and plants are currently in need of stronger protections),” I wrote for a previous Care2 post.
Sure, human life will go on without tiny fish, the birds that eat them, and the other species mentioned. But rest assured, what gets them first will get us later. Of course, we’re too far past the climate tipping point to stop these changes now. The question is, how far will we push it? Given the persistent denial of climate change in the government and media, it’s likely our children will someday be choking on their own butterfish.
The EPA just announced a proposal to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. The public comment period on this proposal ends June 8. Please sign and share this petition to show your support to reduce climate pollution and save the puffins!
Image via Wikimedia Commons