Seamounts Species Spotlight: Atlantic Puffin

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are a special area 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. Its unique geological formations make this area a biological hotspot, attracting many unique species. This blog post in part 1 in a series that profiles some of the incredible species that call this place home.

Atlantic Puffins – tiny 10-inch penguin lookalikes – are some of New England’s most fascinating and beloved seasonal coastal and island visitors.

These seabirds can both swim and fly, with top flying speeds clocking in at 55 miles per hour! Underwater, the birds appear to be flying, using their wings for power and their feet for direction as they dive up to 200 feet below the surface. Their speed is helpful as they search for small fish like sea lance and herring to feed on. Individuals frequently return to the surface with about 10 small fish stuck in their beaks.

Most of the fish caught by adult puffins from April to August is given to hatchlings for feeding. The birds typically keep the same mating partner each year, and produce one egg that they raise in burrows rather than nests. They like to create burrows about one to three feet in length in between craggy rocks, such as those found on Maine’s coastal islands, using only their beaks and feet. Once the couples establish a burrow, complete with a nursery and lavatory, they will share incubating and feeding duties through the mating season.

Atlantic Puffins tend to leave their mating grounds in August. For years, scientists have been stumped about exactly where these birds go to spend the winter months. But through the analysis geolocation data last summer, scientists discovered puffin winter grounds within the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area.

There has been a good deal of research done on these birds, in part because of their long lifespan. The oldest known puffin lived to be at least 34 years old; a typical lifespan is about 20 years.

Despite this longer than usual lifespan, Atlantic Puffin populations struggle with longevity, facing continued threats from human activities like overharvesting and habitat disruption. Overharvesting impacts both food sources and the Atlantic Puffin themselves. Because they are a small and easy target for hunting (outlawed in the U.S., but legal in Iceland and the Faroe Islands), and because they prey on fish species that humans also rely on, these birds are quite vulnerable to human behavior.

Atlantic Puffins in northern New England, in fact, were only recently brought back from the brink of extinction, despite having once been prolific on Maine’s islands (and still enjoying steady population levels in more northern habitats).

Protecting habitat for puffin colonies is especially important, because they return to the same areas each year for breeding and possibly for wintering. If humans don’t protect these places, the future of Atlantic Puffin populations are increasingly uncertain.

Read more about the efforts to restore this species at the Puffin Project website.

Faces of Ocean Planning: Lobsterman Richard Nelson

From his view aboard the FV Pescadero, lobsterman Richard Nelson has witnessed a lot of change along the coastline of Friendship, Maine, over the last 30-plus years.

A proud Mainer with roots generations deep, Richard feels at home on the water along the mouth of Muscongus Bay and within sight of the region’s rocky beaches and island communities.

Throughout the last three decades, Richard has watched Friendship – a small, quiet fishing community – face increasing demands on its coastal ecosystem from both fishing and competing maritime projects.

And with more new development inevitably on the horizon, Richard wonders: Are the powers that be – the state and federal agencies that make decisions about new development projects – communicating not only with each other, but with the people and businesses that call this place home?

Like all fishermen along the Maine coast, Richard views lobstering as much more than a way to earn a living. It’s a way of life that defines the rich culture, maritime history, and very identity of the people who reside along this rugged shoreline and on nearby islands.

With the Gulf of Maine facing a rapid increase in human presence and competing demands – both established and new ­– the buzz around ocean management is growing. But how can communities like Friendship, where livelihoods are inextricably linked to the sea, ensure a level playing field in ocean management conversations when they’re competing to be heard among industry, federal and state agencies, and other ocean stakeholders?

The National Ocean Policy

The answer to this question has come in the form of the National Ocean Policy, enacted by executive order in 2010. It offers the solution of regional ocean planning, which, for Richard, gave the chance for his community to be engaged.

Richard has been heavily involved in New England’s regional ocean planning process since it began. He’s attended  workshops, seminars, and conferences hosted by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the Northeast Regional Ocean Council, Bowdoin College, and the URI International Symposium on Marine Spatial Planning, and he has vocalized his perspective as a local fisherman at every Northeast Regional Planning Body meeting for more than three years.

His message has always been consistent: If local lobstermen in communities like Friendship are displaced as a result of poor stakeholder communication or driven out by larger competitors, they can’t simply move on and begin anew. Their economic survival and way of life depends upon being able to thrive where they are.

Richard has pressed the Regional Planning Body to envision a regional ocean plan that offers a balanced understanding between long-standing industries like the lobster fishery – and its reliance on a healthy ocean ecosystem and resources – alongside offshore wind energy, recreation, shipping, and other newer ocean uses, so they can all continue to thrive in New England.

Everybody wins

Furthermore, the data available to all parties as a result of the regional ocean plan will improve state and federal understanding of the health of the ocean’s ecosystem. Backed by the best available science, fisheries management can be improved to ensure continued access to fishing grounds while building a sustainable fishery.

The use of centralized data by federal and state entities is important not just for fisheries management. It’s also key to other regulatory actions related to marine life, marine habitat, and human uses, in that it will better inform ocean management decisions across the board.

For maritime communities like Friendship, the regional ocean plan represents a formal effort to recognize and include local community perspectives and needs, like Richard Nelson’s hope of keeping the F/V Pescadero afloat and working for years to come.

The draft of the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan will be released May 25, 2016, followed by a public comment period. Conservation Law Foundation and NEOAN (The New England Ocean Action Network) will work together to analyze and inform New Englanders about the key elements of the plan through blog posts, webinars, and more. More information will be available soon. By the fall, the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan will be finalized by the National Ocean Council.