Puffins hit the headlines recently for all the wrong reasons. The numbers of this universally loved seabird are falling and, as of October 2015, the Puffin has joined the International Union for Nature Conservation’s Red List of Species as 'at risk' of global extinction. It is listed as ‘vulnerable’ to extinction, behind the categories 'critically endangered' and 'endangered' due to the magnitude and rapidity of declines across the range. With this status, the Puffin now faces the same level of extinction threat as the African elephant and lion. I find this quite remarkable...but obviously not in a good way.
The Red Listing is driven by declines in Europe, particularly in Iceland, Norway and the Faroes as these regions host 80% of the European population. The Westman Islands of Iceland are home to the largest Puffin breeding colony in the world, but it is rapidly shrinking. Norway also hosts a significant proportion – 30% - of the world’s Puffin population but the species has fared badly in recent years with some colonies declining by two thirds in just a few decades. As a comparison, here in the United Kingdom we have a sizeable population of approximately 900,000 birds but the tale of population declines is similar across regions, with populations on Fair Isle and the Isle of May declining by one half and one third respectively.
So, what is causing the declines? It is likely that multiple factors operating at local and large scales are involved. Hunting, light pollution and predation can all impact populations to various extents but the effects can sometimes be slowed or stopped with targeted conservation action. For example, the traditional practice of hunting puffins in the Westman Islands came to an end in 2011 when a total ban was imposed to help conserve, rather than preserve, the population. Eradication programmes to remove introduced predators from islands also show some success. More significant causes of population declines include pollution, overfishing and climate change. Overfishing has long been implicated in the decline of seabirds and in some areas fishing is now limited to reduce the impacts on breeding colonies. Large scale problems, however, such as global warming are much more challenging to address and precious little can be done to combat the forces of nature and extreme weather events.
These factors affect breeding; chicks hatch later than usual, are fed less frequently and are provisioned with less nutritious prey. Failed breeding attempts or leaving a colony in poor condition can affect over winter survival and recruitment back into the population. Extreme weather events can cause wrecks of birds which in one fell swoop may remove thousands of birds from a population. But, the consequences of failed breeding attempts, low productivity and wrecks may not be immediately evident in a population due to the lag-time that arises from the species not breeding until it is several years old.
For now, the Puffin population is still large but the threat of further declines remains real. As custodians of the largest Puffin colony in the UK this is depressing news. You will have noticed, no doubt, that I haven’t specifically mentioned Puffins at St Kilda. The difficulties associated with surveying this species, coupled with the challenge of accessing colonies at the archipelago, means it is not routinely surveyed and we do not have an up-to-date assessment of population size. What I can say is that there have been worrying low levels of breeding success over the last twenty years so it is possible that the next survey might reveal declines. We will know more soon enough as a survey is scheduled to take place over the new few years.
If you are a Puffin lover (and let’s face it who isn’t?) then there is no need to make rushed plans to visit colonies for fear of them disappearing next year. Instead, what you could think about doing is supporting charities and researchers who are working to understand the reasons why these precious little sea clowns are declining so rapidly.