Protect Our Oceans

In Canada, baby puffins are starving

We're not leaving enough fish in the ocean for puffins to feed their young


puffin close up
John via | Public Domain

“The Puffin Patrol wasn’t finding very many birds.”

That line from Sabina Wilhelm, wildlife biologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, stood out for me as I read this heartbreaking article on the plight of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve’s Atlantic puffin colony. Located in Newfoundland, Canada, the reserve is home to nesting puffins–but this year, a lot of those eggs and chicks won’t turn into adults.

After the Puffin Patrol (what a name) noticed a lack of fledglings getting lost at night near coastal Newfoundland towns, they organized a trip to the Reserve to investigate. Once they got there, they found a lot of malnourished, underweight and dead chicks.

Why are the puffin parents in the Reserve struggling to feed their young?

According to the article written by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, one likely cause is that capelins, a small fish and one of puffins’ favorite foods, are far less abundant than they once were. Fishing efforts that have targeted capelins focus on catching females for their eggs–meaning even fewer fish in the following years because there are less mature females. Furthermore, changing ocean temperatures may also mean capelins and other small fish spend less time at the warmer surface, making it harder for seabirds to catch their prey. Fewer fish, and fewer fish at the surface, means puffins have to search harder to find food to feed their babies.

This problem is not isolated to puffins in Canada: far too many of our most iconic ocean species suffer when human actions limit their food supply. When we build dams that cut off salmon from their spawning grounds in the Pacific Northwest, orcas suffer. When we pollute our waterways and kill off seagrass, manatees starve. And when we fish down the food chain, taking more and more of the smallest fish off our coast, seabirds and many other marine species will struggle to find enough food to survive.

The good news: this puffin colony up north is large enough that one bad year won’t spell disaster for this population of seabirds.

However their plight illustrates, once again, that we need to do better by our ocean and leave more for the birds.

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