Continued threats to tufted puffins, one of the most striking and beloved seabirds in North America, have led to a call to have them protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Tufted puffins, who can be easily recognized by the off-white tufts that grow over their eyes and stark color changes during breeding season, can be found in the U.S., Canada, Russia and Japan but their numbers are declining drastically in the Pacific Northwest, especially in the southern portions of their range.
In just 30 years, populations of these unique birds have dropped by as much as 90 percent in California, Oregon and Washington. Their dwindling numbers have become so worrisome that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a formal petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) this week to have them listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in those three states, where there are only an estimated 4,000 left.
According to the NRDC, these puffins are still numerous in Alaska and British Columbia, but their southern counterparts who live in the species’ historic range are in steep decline and are a distinct population that is important to preserve if there is to be any hope for their long-term survival.
Two of the major threats these puffins face are climate change and overfishing. Climate change is altering the ocean’s temperature, which is affecting their range and fish populations. This leaves them to compete with us for what’s left – with the added risk of being caught and killed as bycatch.
“If you can’t find food to eat, your days are numbered, and that is where the tufted puffin in these states finds itself,” Brad Sewell, NRDC senior attorney, said in a statement. “Climate change is doing a number on the iconic seabird’s populations by making fish scarce. This is on top of other harms from humans, like fishing and habitat destruction. We need to protect them before it’s too late.”
Biologists are concerned about similar problems for Atlantic puffins on the East Coast. Their presence in many areas, like Maine, is considered an indicator of ocean health. Unfortunately, food shortages last year led to starving chicks, a high death toll and concerns about trouble at sea. Scientists are waiting and hoping for a different outcome this year as they continue working on recovery efforts.
Yet another problem for tufted puffins is that they are birds who practice “natal site fidelity,” always returning to the place they were born. If they can’t go home or their habitats are threatened, they may not breed anywhere. The NRDC also notes that recovery has been made harder because the populations in question are also physically separated from other populations so even if they wanted to disperse, they couldn’t.
With endangered species protection, their habitats would be protected and potential restrictions could be put on fishing for fish they rely on for survival. The FWS has 90 days, as of Wednesday, to determine whether or not the petition to protect puffins in California, Oregon and Washington is warranted, and if it does it will still have another year to decide whether or not to list them.
Photo credit: Steve Ebbert/USFWS