The puffins show how the sea is doing

In northern Norway, a few kilometres outside the fishing harbour of Stø in the Vesterålen archipelago, lies the small, unassuming island of Anda. Small it may be, but it boasts one of the largest lighthouses on the Norwegian coast.

The lighthouse was permanently manned until 1987 but now, like all  other lighthouses, it is automated. In the summer though, a number of biologists from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA) move into the old buildings. The island is anything but denuded of life.  

Every spring, tens of thousands of seabirds come here to nest and raise their young. As well as a few shags, common guillemots, black guillemots, gulls and sea eagles, there are also about a thousand pairs of black-legged kittiwakes here. The island was designated a nature reserve in 2002, however, mainly to protect its colony of puffins.

Today there is therefore a strict landing ban during nesting season. But Deep Sea Reporter’s correspondents were nevertheless granted permission to land by the local authorities in Nordland, one of Norway’s many counties. Over two busy days in July 2022, we filmed the activities of birds and biologists on the island.

The work of the biologists on Anda is part of a long-term project monitoring the Norwegian seabird population, as a growing problem had been observed. The project is called SEAPOPP and Anda has been selected as one of 15 key locations along the Norwegian coast from Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean to Oslofjord in the south.

We arrived in Anda on 17 July, as the puffin chicks (or pufflings) had hatched about two weeks earlier. Puffins live in pairs and work together each year to rear their only chick. When we arrived on the island, the chicks were already in their well-sheltered burrows under the ground at high points on the island. About 30,000 puffin pairs nest on the island. Each pair has one chick each, which means that there ought to be up to 90,000 birds in an area not much bigger than 200 x 200 metres.

Every nest is at the end of long underground tunnels running from the entrance to the burrow. You could almost see the island as being like a Swiss cheese, which meant we had to move extremely carefully within a very limited area so as not to fall into a nest.

These puffins (Fratercula arctica), are officially called the Atlantic puffin in English but are also known as the “sea parrot”. There are four species of puffin in the world. The Atlantic puffin is the most common (hence it also being known as the common puffin) and today there are estimated to be about 5 to 6 million pairs in its range.

At nesting time, puffins can be found on coastal islands on the east and west of the North Atlantic. 60% of all individuals nest in Iceland. Norway also has significant colonies, with the largest being in the Røst islands.

Røst is 230 kilometres south of Anda. In the 1970s there were up to 1.5 million breeding pairs there. Today the population on Røst is down to a quarter of a million pairs. This downward trend has been observed in most puffin colonies.  And today the puffin is classified as endangered in Europe. On the other hand, it appears that puffins are doing better and increasingly becoming established in more northern regions.

When the puffin population declined in the early 1970s, it was interpreted as a consequence of overfishing. At that time, North Atlantic herring stocks had been fished close to extinction. This had major consequences for many species as herring was a very important element in their ecosystems. Cod had been dependent on herring and instead began to eat capelin (a small forage fish in the smelt family).

The large fishing boats that had previously caught herring, had to find new species to catch.  And the Norwegian puffins, which had mainly fed their young on herring fry, saw their chicks die of malnutrition.

In the 2000s, herring stocks began to rise once more, but this seemed not to benefit the puffins as much as might have been expected. And now researchers are seeing new problems more linked to climate change and rising sea temperatures. 

The herring fry that used to swim past the puffin colonies at exactly the right time to feed thousands of rapidly growing chicks, now seem to head further north, while other, new species have appeared from the south.

Mackerel have expanded northwards, for example, which means the puffin chicks have gained a new competitor for their herring.  The adults are forced to find other species of fish or seek food further away from their colonies. Long flights can be so demanding that the food gathered is no longer sufficient to meet their own energy needs and feed their hungry young waiting in the nest.

Senior researcher Tyco Anker Nilsen at NINA in Trondheim has been monitoring trends on Røst since the 1970s. He says that it is now 17 years since a puffling was last reared on Røst. This means that the adult birds that are still faithfully returning there to nest are all more than 17 years old. The outlook is bleak when you consider that puffins on average live to about 20. This trend has also been seen in the large Icelandic colonies and in other areas in the puffin’s range.

Up until now, the puffin colony on Anda has produced a fairly stable number of chicks. When we were there in mid-July 2022, however, the biologists noticed a negative trend as the chicks grew and their dietary needs increased. Many stopped growing and many dead young were found in the nests.

In a conversation with researcher and head of the studies on Anda, Signe Dahlsgaard Kristiansen at NINA in Trondheim, she sums up the 2022 nesting year by saying that considerably fewer young survived compared with the previous year (2021).

At the end of the season, barely 10% of the puffin pairs’ young had survived. It is too early to say whether this will be a lasting trend. The mission of the SEAPOPP project is to monitor bird populations down the Norwegian coast in the long term and we can only hope that the biologists will be able to report an improvement after next year’s season on Anda.

Reportage: Lars-Öivind Knutsen
Photo: Lars-Öivind Knutsen

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