Puffin heaven – for now

Iceland was colonised by humans around 1100 years ago by adventurous Viking explorers, initially from Norway but subsequently further settlers arrived from other Scandinavian countries. Inevitably, human arrival led to many changes in the ecology of the main island and its offshore islets, due to direct exploitation of resources for food, shelter and fire, and to the introduction of domestic animals and commensals like rats and mice.

In the absence of native mammals (apart from the Arctic Fox) natural food resources for people included fish and waterbirds, both of which would have initially been abundant. Most seabirds are only accessible when they return to land during their breeding season, however, and this restriction in their temporal availability, but superabundance when they were available, doubtless instilled an attitude of welcome dietary variation during the brief summer months. This led to a tradition of exploiting seabirds for food, a tradition that persists today. One of the main targets was (and remains) the Puffin, of which many thousands of pairs make Iceland their home.

A Reykjavic shop window displaying puffins galore, in all shapes and sizes
Puffin bottle openers with Christmas hats (in March 2017!)

A tourist walking through the main shopping areas of Reykjavic, and even in the shops at tourist hotspots around the island, cannot fail to notice the abundance of souvenir Puffins in various forms: soft toys, on clothing, fridge magnets, key fobs, pencils, stickers, postcards, aprons, mugs, and even stuffed Puffins are available in some shops. The Puffin, with its dinner jacket appearance, and comic appearance with its massive brightly coloured bill, is Iceland’s national bird and the vigorous tourism industry is capitalising on its popularity.

Stuffed Puffins for sale in Reykjavic

Puffin also appears on some restaurant menus, reflecting its persisting place in Icelandic cuisine. The Puffins available in these restaurants, and presumably the stuffed specimens, have been harvested from some of Iceland’s offshore islands (they no longer breed on the mainland). Here, intrepid Icelanders catch Puffins in nets as the birds fly past the cliff faces where the hunters wait patiently in precarious positions. The Icelandic government dictates how many Puffins should be collected each year, constraints which are supposed to ensure that the annual harvest is sustainable.

Puffins on the menu

Unfortunately, however, Iceland’s Puffins are in trouble from another source. Warming sea surface temperatures, associated with climate change, are leading to declines in the species of fish that the birds exploit. This is not a purely Icelandic phenomenon, as it is happening elsewhere in the North Atlantic to Puffins and other seabird species. As a result, Puffins are failing to produce sufficient chicks each year to replenish losses of older birds through natural causes, resulting in worrying declines at Puffin breeding colonies. Icelandic ornithologists are concerned that their government’s restrictions on the annual harvest are insufficient to take account of the birds’ current plight and that the harvest should be accordingly reduced. They argue that the traditional nature of the harvest should not override the biological reality that the birds are unable to produce sufficient young to maintain their populations.

This has some parallels with my own studies of Sooty Terns in Seychelles, where eggs are harvested annually in huge quantities. Sooty Tern numbers have fallen, largely as a result of habitat change on nesting islands, but recently suffering reductions in chick production, possibly associated with climate change. Regulation of the egg harvest is insufficiently robust to take account of new challenges faced by the birds, leading to uncertainties over the birds’ future.

 

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