Puffins in peril

Paul Smith
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A warning we should heed

In July 2009, Chris Fowler and I roamed around Iceland on a quest for salmon and trout. We flew to Reykjavik on the Icelandair red-eye from Halifax, arriving about 6 a.m.

From there, in our rented SUV, we headed out of town on Route 1. Often referred to as the Ring Road, it loops completely around the Viking island, a full circuit of 1,339 km. I’d class this drive as something to put on a bucket list, an experience one might categorize with seeing the Egyptian Pyramids, and walking atop the Great Wall of China, something many travellers vow to do before departing this planet.  

The Route 1 Viking experience is both cultural and geographical in significance. It’s homeland to great Viking explorers like Erik the Red and Leif Ericson, who is thought to have wintered in Newfoundland centuries before John Cabot set sail, in fact 500 years before Columbus discovered America.

Then there’s the absolutely amazing landscape. Just about every landform you read of in your geography book, you will see on Route 1. There are volcanoes, lava flows, hot springs, geothermal vents, calving icebergs, glaciers, massive alluvial deposits. It’s all there.

Chris and I enjoyed the physical environment, but as you might guess our mission focused primarily on fishing. And we did extremely well. I’ll give you the details some time in another column. Right now, I’m leading up to something a little off the angling path. Well, sort of.

This week’s theme is connected to environmental things, and it’s about puffins. You may have noticed these lovely seabirds in the news of late.

Why am I talking about Iceland? It’s not an obvious connection, but my mind and my writing connects dots in odd ways. When Chris and I finished our fishing and arrived back in Reykjavik, we booked into our accommodation, an inn called Erik the Red.

A quite interesting owner, a descendant of the great Viking explorers no doubt, made us honorary Vikings. The ritual involved the consumption of rotten shark and very potent spirits, very hardcore, but then again, we were in the land of ice, fire and plunderers of nations. I loved it.

Still wondering how this leads to puffins?

Two freshly anointed Vikings went searching through downtown Reykjavik for supper. An establishment caught our eye, Þrir Frakkar, literally translated as “three Frenchmen.” It looked like a most interesting place to eat our last meal in Iceland.

We both ordered a traditional Icelandic favourite, not unlike our fish and brewis. It’s called Gratineraður Plokkfiskur með rúgbrauði, or in English, hashed fish with black bread. That’s fine for an entrée, but what about an appetizer?

My eyes popped and stared motionlessly.

“Chris, do you see what’s here?”

“Yeah, no brainer, we can’t pass on puffin.”

We ordered Reyktur Lundi með sinnepssósu, or smoked puffin breast with mustard. It was a very good thing.

I recall my father speaking fondly of tasty puffin soup. That was many decades ago during the Great Depression; food was scarce and I have no idea if puffin soup was legal or not.

Puffins are protected birds here in Newfoundland and Labrador. They are actually a huge tourist draw. Visitors and local folk alike take boat tours to observe puffins and whales.

Just a few days ago on the evening news, I saw a boat tour operator talking about his business and puffins. He said that although many people come to see whales, puffins are critical to his business.

It isn’t always possible to locate and observe whales. Puffins, on the other hand, are much more reliable. They are around for most of the year and are easy to get close to, even close enough for decent photographs.

Thankfully the puffin population here in our fair land is quite healthy. I’m thinking the population is also stable in Iceland or they wouldn’t be serving puffin dishes in restaurants.

The Scandinavians are indeed   conservation-minded people. Unfortunately, in more southern waters, puffin populations are in a serious tailspin.

In the Gulf of Maine, many hundreds of puffins are dying. For example, on Seal Island, a national wildlife refuge that’s about 20 miles offshore, only 31 per cent of the laid eggs produced fledglings. That’s dramatically down from the five-year average of 77 percent. What is going on?

The experts say the problem is shifting fish populations, which have occurred because of changes in climate. The ocean is warmer, causing herring to move further north, and butterfish, traditionally a more southern species, to move in and fill the void.

Naturally the puffins in the area hunted the butterfish to feed their young. They had no choice. The butterfish were too big and round for the chicks to swallow so they starved to death with piles of uneaten fish surrounding them.

Who would have ever guessed global warming could have caused such an outcome? Predator-prey relationships in nature hang in a delicate balance.

I think there is a very important lesson in this. First off, if the environmentalists are right, which I suspect they are, and the Earth is warming, we have no idea what the outcomes for us and other creatures that share this planet could be.

The web of nature is far too complex for us to have any hope of predicting outcomes, no matter how much we think we understand the present conditions.

That’s the same reason we can’t predict the weather any more than a week or so in advance.  Scientists call it the butterfly effect. If you are interested in the science behind this phenomena, type “chaos theory and strange attractors” into your favourite search engine.

What might all this say about caribou? Caribou, both in Newfoundland and Labrador, are in serious decline. Nobody really knows why. The reasons are likely multiple and complicated. It is a danger to jump to what seem sometimes like obvious conclusions.

Many will ague that the coyote is totally responsible for the demise of caribou on the island portion of our province. I suspect there is much more at play here than just coyotes.

No doubt, the coyote is part of the problem, but there’s likely more. Caribou, for reasons that escape the best scientists and researches, are in decline all around the world.

Then there’s the tormenting and perplexing problem of salmon mortality at sea.

Likely this is another deep-rooted effect with multiple causes. It will take much effort and research to unravel the mystery. And if we refuse to embrace green energy and more self-sustaining lifestyles, we might find ourselves in a bigger pickle, with many more complex problems that have no simple or obvious solutions.


Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity.

He can be contacted at flyfishtherock@hotmail.com.

Organizations: Icelandair

Geographic location: Iceland, Reykjavik, Newfoundland and Labrador Halifax Ring Road Viking island China Maine Seal Island

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