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article imageClimate crisis a factor in die-off of thousands of tufted puffins

By Karen Graham     May 30, 2019 in Environment
Thousands of tufted puffins in the Bering Sea are dead partly because of starvation and stress brought on by changing climate conditions, researchers say.
Researchers published their findings, documenting the Bering Sea “wreck”, or mass die-off, with the help of a citizen science program that included tribal and community members on St Paul Island. The research was published in the journal Plos One on May 29, 2019.
Puffins in the wild are starving to death because the changing air and ocean temperatures and changing sea ice conditions have disrupted their food supply. The puffins normally feed on krill and small fish; food that is now going to bigger predators than the orange-beaked seabirds.
The loss of nutritious prey species caused by the climate crisis is also affecting populations of the Atlantic puffin around Britain and Iceland.
A tufted puffin in flight. (Taken by NOAA). Alaska Pribilof Islands  St. Paul Island..
A tufted puffin in flight. (Taken by NOAA). Alaska Pribilof Islands, St. Paul Island..
NOAA (CC BY 2.0)
The tufted puffins reside and mate throughout British Columbia and Alaska, with big concentrations along the Aleutian Islands, in the Bering Islands and the Chukchi Sea.
The problem began in 2016
In November 2016, Digital Journal reported that hundreds of tufted puffins were washing up along the shore of St. Paul Island, an isolated and windswept stretch of land in the Philpot Islands in the North Pacific.
Julia Parrish a professor who coordinates a West Coast volunteer bird-monitoring network said at the time that "In 10 years of monitoring, we've only seen six puffins wash in — total."
But then she added, "Now we've seen nearly 250 in 20 days. And these islands are small dots in the middle of a huge ocean. The entire puffin population is only 6,000 birds, and we project half that many may be affected." It was very obvious what had happened - the seabirds had starved to death.
Saint Paul Island  Alaska  foreground  fur seals on rookery and in water. Saint Paul Village in dist...
Saint Paul Island, Alaska, foreground, fur seals on rookery and in water. Saint Paul Village in distance.
Bill Briggs (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The eastern Bering Sea supports some of the most economically important fisheries in the world and hosts large populations of marine mammals. The Bering Sea also supports the $1 billion-a-year Pollock fishing industry that provides those flaky, white fish sticks Americans love, and is the breeding and/or summering ground for 30–40 million marine birds.
Bering Sea food webs are particularly sensitive to bottom-up climate effects we are seeing now. And with the food web changing, starvation is inevitable for the puffins. Puffins normally eat about 30 to 50 percent of their body mass every day.
Larger cold-blooded fish like cod normally eat about 0.1 to 0.2 percent of their body weight every day. But when ocean temperatures increase this causes the larger fishes' metabolism to rise 30 to 50 percent. The increase in metabolism makes the larger fish eat more — leaving less for the puffins.
Crested auklets made up 13 percent of the carcasses examined.
Crested auklets made up 13 percent of the carcasses examined.
F. Deines, USFWS (CC BY 2.0)
"That's a lot of food, if you don't get any food in one day, you're in big trouble. If you don't get that in four days, you're dead," said John Piatt, a research wildlife biologist of the U.S. Geological Survey, who was not a part of the study.
What the study on the Bering Sea “wreck” found
When a seabird dies out in the middle of the ocean, its body will float on the surface from four to 14 days. In that time, winds driving currents push the body along. Usually, the corpse will wash up on St. Paul Island if it doesn't sink first,
The research team was able to use wind data and estimated the total number of dead puffins during the four-month research period starting October 2016 — to be between 3,150 and 8,500.
According to the study, by Timothy Jones of the citizen science Coast program, at the University of Washington, and Lauren Divine, from the Aleut community of St Paul Island’s ecosystem conservation office, puffins typically made up fewer than one percent of carcasses found in previous years.
Fratercula arctica  the Atlantic puffin is the only puffin native to the Atlantic Ocean.
Fratercula arctica, the Atlantic puffin is the only puffin native to the Atlantic Ocean.
Aconcagua (CC BY 3.0)
However, in the Bering Sea Wreck, fully 87 percent of the carcasses were tufted puffins with the remainder being the crested auklet, another North American seabird.
Divine said the documentation of the Bering Sea die-off would not have been possible without the observations and carcasses collected by the citizen science group, which has been surveying seabirds for 17 years.
“Island residents collected high-quality data in real time and provided Coast with a detailed context for their analysis,” she said. “Without the positive and mutually beneficial relationship built over years of collaboration, this massive die-off of tufted puffins would have gone unreported in the scientific community.”
Parrish explained that an ecosystem is like a finely tuned machine, and works very well when every part is working as part of the whole machine.
"I think people will think climate change will make everything go away," she said. "That's not the case, but it will make a lot of things shift, and we will see a lot of mortality, and it will go on for much longer than our lifetimes."
More about tifted puffins, Climate crisis, Dieoff, st Pauls island, Alaska
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