All is not well for the puffins calling the rocky shores of the Gulf of Maine home, or for their razorbill neighbors, or for the hake and haddock the puffins feed on. And something weird’s going on up there with the lobsters and phytoplankton too, according to Rowan Jacobsen writing for Mother Jones. Whales and sailfish aren’t doing what they ought to be doing, either:
The next sign of deep weirdness arrived in December 2012, when Florida beachcombers began spotting hundreds of what appeared to be penguins soaring above the Miami surf. They turned out to be razorbills, close relatives of puffins that also call the Gulf of Maine home.
Razorbills should be high on your reincarnation wish list. Superb fliers, they can also plunge into the sea and pursue fish underwater by flapping their wings—while dressed in black tie. James Bond, eat your heart out.
But normally, they do all this in the North Atlantic. Suddenly thousands of them had decided to move to Florida. The consensus was that they had simply kept going in a desperate attempt to find food—and that it couldn't end well for them. It didn't. By early 2013, hundreds of dead razorbills had washed up along East Coast beaches, most emaciated. So did 40 puffins. "That's very rare," Kress says. In fact, finding even a single dead puffin on the beach is unusual. "They're tough little guys! They'll live 30 years or more."
The weirdness continued. In the spring of 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made its semiannual trawl survey of the Gulf of Maine, dragging a net at dozens of points throughout the Gulf and counting, weighing, and measuring everything caught. There were plenty of butterfish and mountains of spiny dogfish, a small shark that used to be relatively rare in the Gulf of Maine but now owns the place. There were very few cod, the fish that made New England, that lured thousands of fishing boats from Europe, that fed millions of people over the centuries. NOAA slashed the 2013 quota for cod to a pittance, putting hundreds of enraged fishermen out of work.
In recent history, the average ocean surface temperature of the Gulf of Maine has hovered around 44 degrees Fahrenheit. 2013 was the second-warmest year in the Gulf in three decades, with an average surface temperature of 46.6 degrees. But it was nowhere near the freakish spike to 47.5 degrees in 2012, and the phytoplankton did not repeat its crazy early bloom. Instead, it didn't bloom at all. "So poorly developed, its extent was below detection limits" was how NOAA put it in its Ecosystem Advisory, sounding surprisingly calm, considering it was saying the marine equivalent of "No grass sprouted in New England this year." Phytoplankton feeds some tiny fish and shrimp directly, but more often it feeds zooplankton, the bugs of the sea, and these in turn feed everything from herring to whales. The undetectable phytoplankton bloom did not bode well for zooplankton, and sure enough, that spring NOAA broke the grim news: "The biomass of zooplankton was the lowest on record." Even this dirge doesn't do justice to the dramatic deviation from the organisms' historical norm: Their numbers bounced along in a comfortable range for 35 years before taking a gut-wrenching nosedive in 2013.
By the time of that announcement, Project Puffin was starting its 2013 season. With spring temperatures closer to normal, Kress had hoped that his Seal Island puffins would return to their fruitful ways, but only two-thirds of the colony showed up. Still, a new chick was chosen for the Puffin Cam feed, and viewers named her Hope. For a while, all went well. Kress saw fewer butterfish being delivered, and Hope flourished. But soon Kress noticed that fewer birds than usual were hanging out at the Loafing Ledge, a rocky ridge where the parents socialize between feedings. Then he realized that the time between chick feedings was considerably longer than normal. The puffins were having to range much farther to find fish.
Too far, as it turned out. Although Hope successfully fledged on August 21, she was one of the few lucky ones. Only 10 percent of the puffin chicks survived in 2013—the worst year on record.
Read the whole of this excellent piece of nature writing by Jacobsen, Something Is Seriously Wrong on the East Coast—and It's Killing All the Baby Puffins.
Includes link to Project Puffin’s Puffin Cam.