Only 25 Percent of Maine's Puffins Were Able to Raise Chicks in 2021 Due to Warming Ocean

Only about 25 percent of the puffin population off the coast of Maine was able to raise chicks this year, marking 2021 as one of the worst years for the seabirds' reproduction in decades, the Associated Press reported. The lower number of chicks is believed to have been caused by warmer ocean temperatures, which decreased the number of small fish puffins and their young offspring rely on for food.

Maine's puffins reside across four small islands located off the coast of the state, the AP reported. The approximately 1,500 breeding pairs of the seabirds in Maine depend on small fish like herring and sand lance to feed their young offspring.

A steep decline in the herring population caused the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to place new restrictions on the U.S. herring fishery early in 2021, including rules that take into account the fish's role in the ecosystem.

Don Lyons, the director of conservation science for the National Audubon Society's Seabird Institute in Bremen, Maine, said that about two-thirds of the puffins are normally able to reproduce and raise chicks in a typical year. The 25 percent of the birds that were able to raise young this year is a steep decline from that average.

"There were fewer fish for puffins to catch, and the ones they were able to were not ideal for chicks," Lyons said. "It's a severe warning this year."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Puffin ChickIn this July 19, 2019, file
Roughly 25 percent of the puffin population off the coast of Maine was able to raise chicks this year, marking 2021 as one of the worst years for the seabirds’ reproduction in decades. Research assistant Andreinna Alvarez, of Ecuador, holds a puffin chick before weighing and banding the bird on Eastern Egg Rock, a small island off the coast of Maine on July 19, 2019. Robert F. Bukaty/AP Photo

The puffin colonies have suffered only one or two less productive years in the four decades since their populations were restored in Maine, Lyons said.

The islands where puffins nest are located in the Gulf of Maine, a body of water that is warming faster than the vast majority of the world's oceans. Researchers have not seen much mortality of adult puffins, but the population will suffer if the birds continue to have difficulty raising chicks, Lyons said.

The discouraging news comes after positive signs in recent years despite the challenging environmental conditions. The population of the birds, which are on Maine's state threatened species list, has been stable in recent years.

The birds had one of their most productive seasons for mating pairs in years in 2019. Scientists including Stephen Kress, who has studied the birds for decades, said at the time that birds seemed to be doing well because the Gulf of Maine had a cool year that led to an abundance of food.

The puffins are Atlantic puffins that also live in Canada and the other side of the ocean. Internationally, they're listed as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Decline in Puffin Chicks Being Raised
This year's warm summer was bad for Maine's beloved puffins. Far fewer chicks fledged than were needed to stabilize the population. A puffin prepares to land with a bill full of fish on Eastern Egg Rock off the Maine coast on July 1, 2013. Robert F. Bukaty/AP Photo