Expert Proposes Ban on Hunting Puffins

puffins iceland

The South Iceland Nature Research Centre proposes a full ban on puffing hunting in Iceland in a new report. Iceland’s puffin population has been below sustainable limits for a long time and its outlook is poor. The Centre’s Director and a Doctor of Biology Erpur Snær Hansen told RÚV that changing hunting regulations would take political will.

Around 20% of the global population of puffins nest in Iceland’s Westman Islands, with other, smaller colonies across the country. The average puffin population in Iceland has shrunk by 70% in the last thirty years. The change is attributed to a scarcity of food for the birds caused by rising sea temperatures. Hunting, of course, causes the birds’ numbers to decline even further.

Population set to keep decreasing, even if hunting is banned

Erpur says The total puffin population in Iceland numbers around 3 million nesting pairs. If puffing hunting is banned, that population is expected to decrease by over 10% over the next decade. If hunting continues to be permitted, however, the population is expected to decrease by 30% or even as much as 50% within that same period.

“This is not sustainable hunting, and the Wildlife Act clearly states that it should be,” Erpur explains. He adds that the current regulations around puffing hunting mean that not all puffins hunted are reported, so the impact on the population could be greater than projected.

Political will needed to ban puffing hunting

Erpur goes on to explain that, unlike ptarmigan or reindeer hunting, for which quotas can be set and changed yearly by inserting a provision into the regulation, puffing hunting is subject to a different set of laws. In order to ban puffing hunting, the Minister of the Environment would need to change that law. “Maybe it can just be said that the political will to do something about it was not strong enough, or that the pressure from interested parties was therefore greater,” Erpur mused.

Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir received criticism for imposing a temporary ban on whale hunting this year, a decision that also caused tension within the governing coalition.

Puffin Population Declining More Rapidly than Previously Believed

puffins iceland

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.”