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Puffin Die-Off On St. Paul Island May Point to Larger Ecosystem Problems

Dec 7, 2016

St. Paul residents have seen 300 puffin carcasses wash ashore since mid-October. Scientists say seabirds are good indicators of overall ecosystem health, which means the die-off could be a sign of trouble for all sorts of species.
Credit COASST Island Sentinels

In the past two months, 300 dead puffins have washed up on St. Paul Island, alarming residents who had only seen six carcasses over the last decade.

The die-off appears to be slowing down now, but scientists say it could be the sign of a much larger ecosystem problem.

Lauren Divine didn't panic when St. Paul residents found a few dead puffins on the beach in mid-October.

"The first day was a tufted puffin. The next day was a horned puffin. I didn't think too much about it," said Divine, co-director of St. Paul's Ecosystem Conservation Office (ECO). 

Within the week, she said it became clear something was wrong, as islanders found more and more carcasses.

They posted photos on Facebook and called the ECO office concerned. Divine took the first dead birds to Anchorage for research while her co-director hopped on a four-wheeler and hit the beaches to the gauge the extent of the problem.

"She called me up and said: 'I've followed up on these citizen reports of puffins, and they're everywhere. There are dead puffins everywhere.'"

The carcasses came ashore in waves. Dozens at a time. They washed up so fast most were still intact days later — a sign there were so many, scavenging foxes couldn't keep up.

Divine said the extent of the die-off was frightening. St. Paul residents began patrolling the beaches daily, and the ECO office had 10 dead puffins necropsied.

"After we opened up the first five, it was very apparent that all of them were emaciated," she said. "Their muscles were completely atrophied. They had empty stomachs. They had gastrointestinal bleeding, which indicates severe long-term starvation. They were in very, very poor shape."

The theory is that the puffins left the island and headed south to winter in the Bering Sea as usual. But when they couldn't find food, they grew weak, starved, and were carried back to St. Paul by ocean currents.

"So we started digging into this more," said Divine. "What is happening? Where is their food?"

To answer those questions, the ECO office enlisted help from the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), based at the University of Washington. It's a citizen science program that has 800 volunteers collecting data on seabirds from northern California to Kotzebue and Cape Lisburne.

Julia Parrish is executive director of the program. She said all that local data helps piece together the big picture unfolding across the north Pacific Ocean, as well as the Bering and Chukchi Seas.

Right now, Parrish says the major force at work is a big patch of warm water called the Blob, and it’s affecting the entire marine ecosystem.

"Suddenly, it's like the grocery store is full of new things — and less good things — to eat," said Parrish.

The changes begin at the bottom of the food chain, with plankton and forage fish — the kind of fish that make up a puffin's diet.  Those small fish try to adjust to the warmth by swimming to different areas or diving deeper in search of cool water.

For the puffins on St. Paul, that's meant widespread starvation. In fact, Parrish said the 300 birds found dead may represent just 10 percent of the total die-off, when you account for carcasses that are probably blowing past the small island.

"That would mean those 300 birds scale up to 3,000 birds," she said. "That's half of the breeding population of the Pribilof Islands."

The people of St. Paul don't harvest puffins for subsistence, but Parrish said seabirds are good indicators of overall ecosystem health. That means this die-off could be a sign of trouble for all sorts of species that residents rely on to fill their freezers.

"Can these populations sustain this kind of long-term change pressure? Boy, that's a great question," she said. "I wish I knew the answer. I can tell you I think it's going to be stressful for them for a while."

Back in St. Paul, Divine said it looks like the puffin die-off is slowing down, but the ECO office is also seeing signs of stress in other species.

She said the island's seabirds laid barely any eggs this season, hunters had a hard time finding sea lions, and crab quotas were cut sharply after a survey showed low numbers.

"It's all interrelated — from the smallest harmful algal blooms and phytoplankton issues to whale die-offs and loss of sea ice," she said. "It's absolutely all connected, and I think we're so far past the point of needing some kind of conservation and management action — before it's too late to give the ecosystem a fighting chance."

But even for scientists, it's hard to know what to do. As Parrish says, you can't legislate water temperature.

So for now, that leaves the people of St. Paul to pick up dead birds from their beaches and monitor the changing ocean that surrounds them.