Puffin Population Declining More Rapidly than Previously Believed Skip to content
puffins iceland
Photo: Photo: Golli. Puffins in Borgarfjörður Eystri.

Puffin Population Declining More Rapidly than Previously Believed

The Icelandic puffin population has shrunk by 70% in the last thirty years. The Managing Director of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF) has stated that this is bad news for the ecosystem and for companies within the tourist sector, who have marketed the puffin as a kind of national symbol.

Decline much worse than previously believed

Iceland plays host to a significant portion of the world’s puffins, with approximately 20% of the global population nesting in the Westman Islands every year. While the Icelandic puffin population may not be as substantial as that of other bird species in the country, it has experienced a substantial decline over the past thirty years.

In an interview with RÚV, biologist Erpur Snær Hansen revealed that the latest data indicates a staggering 70% decline in the puffin population since 1995, surpassing the previously believed figure of 40%.

“We hadn’t analysed population trends from such an early period before, and it was shocking to discover that the decline was much more severe than previously estimated,” Erpur stated.

While puffin populations naturally fluctuate over time, the recent measurements unveiled an unprecedented pattern. “This recent decline appears to be distinct. This consistent delay in nesting and poor breeding is unprecedented in the 140-year history we have been studying.”

The primary cause of this decline stems from a scarcity of food for the birds, which can be attributed to rising sea temperatures. Additionally, puffin hunting accounts for at least 10% of the population decrease. Erpur emphasised that puffin hunting is not sustainable, despite recent declines in its prevalence. “Generally speaking, hunting declining populations is not a good philosophy.”

When asked about the potential ban on puffin hunting, Erpur responded:

“This spring, there was a consideration, in collaboration with the Environment Agency, to have scientists assess the impact of a sales ban because protecting this species is a challenging endeavour. This form of hunting, tied to land ownership, appears to have a peculiar exemption from common sense.”

Bad news for Icelandic tourism

In an interview with Vísir, Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, the Managing Director of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF), highlighted the negative consequences of the declining puffin population, particularly for the tourism industry:

“Naturally, this is detrimental to the ecosystem and to the tourism industry, too, which has embraced the puffin as its emblem. The puffin is an incredibly beautiful and unique bird. When people visit Iceland, being able to witness puffin nests in places like Borgarfjörður Eystri, Reynisjfara, West Iceland, and the Westman Islands enhances their experience. It would be truly unfortunate if the population fails to recover.”

Jóhannes further emphasised that some tourists specifically travel to Iceland for the opportunity to see puffins: “It is quite possible that individuals come here solely to observe the puffin, especially those from countries where the puffin is protected and, therefore, less visible.”

The constant changes in the biosphere can significantly impact tourism, as Jóhannes noted: “We have already witnessed changes in the distribution of other bird species, such as arctic terns. These developments raise various concerns.”

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