After spending the summer nesting—mostly in Vestmannaeyjar, off the south coast of Iceland—the nation’s two to three million resident puffin pairs have returned to sea for the winter. While this fact alone is hardly newsworthy, those puffins have returned with hardly any pufflings in tow for the seventh consecu-tive year, and that’s newsworthy.
When it comes time to leave, a number of pufflings confuse streetlights for the moon—the puffin’s compass—and get stranded in town. Thus it has long been a tradition amongst kids in Vestmannaeyjar to go out looking for the helpless birds. They scoop them up in boxes, keep them over night, and then release them out to sea where they regain their bearings the following morning.
This September kids found twelve pufflings—two more than last year—which Erpur Snær Hansen, a biologist at South Iceland Nature Research Centre, says are awfully small numbers. “Ten chicks in town means that about 500 chicks were born,” Erpur says. “It’s basically a joke. In a normal year, 500.000 chicks are born.”
Though Erpur says the puffin colony has waned in the past, people don’t notice when it happens gradually; it’s when it happens all of a sudden that peop-le take note. “In 2005, people started getting worried when they saw puffin colonies paved with dead chicks,” Erpur says, “and last year, the puffins basically gave up before the chicks even came around with only 17% of eggs hatching normally.”
Something happened in 2005
Erpur and his colleagues took pictures of 12.000 birds in 2007 and 2008 to age them by their bills, and discovered that the 2005 and 2006 cohorts were basically non-existent. Since then they have been closely monitoring chick production, and have found that with the exception of 2007, it has been effectively nil.
“Something happened in 2005,” Erpur says. “It’s difficult to explain exactly what it was, but something failed.” He names two hypotheses that may explain the diminished chick production: ‘Increased predation,’ and ‘mismatch of food supply.’
“You could say that what’s going on in the sea is basically a circus,” Erpur says, prefacing the first hypothesis—increased predation. The crux of it has to do with ocean temperature, which he says rises and falls every 70 years—a cyclical phenomenon first described in a 1994 issue of Nature magazine. “In 1996, we started a warm cycle,” he says. “It takes some years to warm up, and we have now reached temperatures of the last heat period between 1930 and 1960.”
This has brought about a slew of changes, including an increase in known predators, such as the mackerel, which started showing up in 2005—and in great numbers to the mackerel club’s chagrin. “If you look at the situation in Agatha Christie terms, the mackerel is one of the primary suspects… only the last chapter is missing,” Erpur says. “They are ferocious predators. They are like vacuum cleaners that basically clean up everything when they come to Icelandic waters, which they have done before.”
Still, Erpur is cautious to pin it on the mackerel given the heated debate about whether or not Icelanders should be permitted to fish the species. “We cannot really know what they were doing in 2005,” Erpur says. “Everything bad about them is used to justify the hunt, as the mackerel is a highly valued fish. It’s basically nationalistic propaganda to say, ‘well we need to kill some whales to keep nature in balance’. It’s pseudoscience. There is no balance. Change is the status quo.”
He describes the second hypothesis—mismatch of the food supply—as an old, classic, initially put forth to explain why most big commercial predators have varying cohort sizes. “The idea is that fish larvae—like sand eel larvae—didn’t coincide with the peak of the zooplankton. For instance, if they hatched earlier or if there was a delayed plankton bloom, the fish that feed on the plankton would have starved to death,” he says.
“The problem is that these hypotheses are trying to explain some events that happened in the past and we don’t have much data to differentiate between them,” he says. “It’s probably a mixture of everything. That’s the feeling you get when you start looking at these things.”
Will they make a comeback?
Iceland is, according to the Icelandic Hunting Club, the only country in the world where puffins can be hunted, and an average 76.000 have been hunted every year. Given their dramatic decline, locals in Vestmannaeyjar reduced the hunting season from 45 days to 20 in 2008, to 5 days in 2009, and then banned hunting altogether this year.
Though this is a commendable initiative taken in Vestmannaeyjar, Erpur calls the current system of regulation “arcane.” “It doesn’t make sense to allow hunting in the north when everything is going down the drain in Vestmannaeyjar,” he says. He believes that puffins should be considered a national popula-tion managed by a single unit. Even if hunting 15.000 puffins a year—each selling for 500 ISK a head—is not likely to collapse the population, Erpur says it’s not sustainable given that there are not enough chicks being born to make up for the dying adults.
“The decline has been going on for seven years, and it could continue for another twenty years given the heat cycle,” he points out. “Hunting them is simply not ethical.” So he hopes the Minister for the Environment Svandís Svavarsdóttir, who has been rewriting and modernizing Icelandic environmental legislature, will succeed in passing legislation. Otherwise there is no telling if Iceland’s most populous bird—and popular tourist attraction—will make a comeback.