Thousands of puffin chicks, or pufflings, have died of starvation in Heimaey this summer, RÚV reports. The same is occurring in some of the bird’s traditional breeding grounds in Norway and the UK. A team of UK researchers is investigating the phenomenon, in which global warming and fishing appear to be the causes.
The researchers, alongside experts across Europe, are studying puffin colonies in Grímsey, North Iceland, the Westman Islands, South Iceland, as well as Røst island in Norway and Skomer island off the coast of Wales. Puffin stocks are have declined dramatically in some of these areas, and global warming appears to be the main cause. Scientists believe that rising ocean temperatures are forcing cold-water fish species further north, making them scarce in seabirds’ traditional breeding grounds. Trawling of small fish such as sprats and sand eels, the main source of food for puffins, has further diminished their stocks.
Heimaey, in the Westman Islands, is home to the largest puffin colony in the world. It has seen thousands of puffling deaths this summer. “Some years the eggs don’t hatch, and the chicks only survive for a short time. I was in the Westman islands last week, for example, and we found a whole lot of tiny, newly-hatched pufflings there which had most likely died of starvation,” recounted Dr. Annette Fayet, puffin specialist from the University of Oxford in an interview with RÚV. Fayet is in Iceland collaborating with local researchers to tag puffins and set up cameras in order to identify what fish they are feeding to their chicks.
Although puffins are on the list of endangered species, they are still hunted for their meat in Iceland. Fayet says the practice is unjustifiable considering the bird’s population decline, adding that without immediate protective measures, the puffin, alongside many other seabirds, will face extinction.