A recent study found that populations of tufted puffin, one of Washington’s most charismatic but endangered seabirds, are declining across 75 percent of their range in North America.
While tufted puffins are found as far north as Alaska, the most dramatic losses have occurred in Oregon and Washington. Approximately half of the historically occupied puffin nesting colonies in Washington have been lost, dropping from an estimated 17,500 puffins in the early 1900s to 1,400 puffins in recent years.
Led by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the researchers say these trends are concerning and will require a multifaceted, long-term response to better pinpoint why this is happening and how we can help.
One of the issues tufted puffins are facing is a changing ocean and food supply. Warmer waters are driving forage fish — small, schooling fish like Pacific herring, as well as squid, shrimp, and other prey — deeper into the ocean and further offshore. This forces seabirds like tufted puffins to work harder to find them, and can result in poor breeding success.
Tufted puffins are not alone in experiencing population declines. More than 70 species of shorebirds, waterfowl, marsh birds, and seabirds rely on Puget Sound during some part of their life cycle. But many of these birds are in crisis — shorebirds in North America have declined by 70 percent since 1973, and we’ve lost 70 percent of seabirds worldwide since the 1950s.
While there are many possible culprits to these trends — oil spills, habitat loss, and overfishing to name a few — climate change is a key driving force that threatens the wildlife, people, and economy. Audubon has identified two important steps our federal lawmakers must take to help protect seabirds and communities in our region from these threats.
First, Congress can improve the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the nation’s only federal fisheries law. Since 1976, the MSA has helped fishery managers around the country recover 45 fish populations and ensure that overfishing is at an all-time low. Though we celebrate this success, this law does not yet recognize the important role that forage fish play in the ecosystem for seabirds as well as species like salmon and orcas. It’s vital that we update the MSA not only to ensure seabirds have plenty of fish to eat, but also to protect seabirds from getting entangled in fishing gear, incorporate climate change into fisheries management plans, and boost protections for coastal areas designated as essential fish habitat.
Don’t forget estuaries
Second, Congress should dedicate additional funding to the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Estuaries — where rivers meet the ocean — include habitats like mangroves, wetlands, seagrass beds, and mud flats, and serve as nurseries for juvenile fish. Coastal communities and Native American tribes rely on healthy estuaries to support local fisheries, and to act as a first line of defense against storms and sea-level rise.
Protecting seabirds, forage fish, and their coastal habitats is essential to protect Washington’s recreational and commercial fishing industries, as well as ecotourism, restaurants, and all industries that rely on a healthy ocean. The marine economy in Washington employs 136,000 people and generates $14.1 billion in gross domestic product.
Protecting coastal ecosystems and the communities that rely upon them will take innovative policy approaches and significant investments, and it’s up to all of us to make sure our elected officials prioritize healthy Washington waters. I encourage our federal lawmakers to join Audubon in championing these issues on Capitol Hill. By working together, we can make sure that seabirds and our communities thrive for generations to come.
Catherine Conolly is a retired ecologist from Seattle and serves as chair of the advisory board for Audubon Washington.