Once everyone had set up their tents, we left for the puffin colony. Destruction Island is not large, but the walk was a slow one. We had to pick our way through the cobbly intertidal, stepping on or over rocks both slick with algae and sharp with barnacles — a harsh combination should one misplace a sandaled foot. Even so, these were welcome risks, not least because they afforded a reprieve from eau de baleine morte.
Hodum, Pearson, and Good had been coming to Destruction Island for more than a decade, not just to watch the puffins, but also to monitor the thousands of rhinoceros auklets that burrowed all over the hillsides. They knew the place well. Gaydos, on the other hand, had never been out before. He marveled as he walked, taking in the tall white lighthouse, long ago decommissioned, that towered over Destruction’s westward face; gazing upon the steep sandstone bluffs that made the island seem taller than its hundred feet; squinting up at the skeins of gulls drifting overhead. “It’s so beautiful,” he said. “You guys are lucky.”
Most of the puffins occupy a grassy slope on a rocky finger that reaches from the northwestern side of Destruction several hundred feet into the sea. The slope curves to form a sort of amphitheater, with perhaps 10 active burrows arrayed across it. Only pufflings were in them, their parents loafing just offshore. (Loafing is the term used for when a seabird floats in a restful way for hours.) We counted the adults as they bobbed in and out of view — 10, 15, maybe 20 birds. They leave the colony in the morning, feed their chicks small fish for a few hours, and then spend much of the day in this state of marine repose until they return to their burrows for the evening.
The greater existential threats to puffins are the changing oceanic conditions and large-scale declines in marine productivity.
Pearson had brought a pair of mist nets, each about 40 feet long. He, Hodum, and Good stepped carefully across the slope, arranging the net poles in a way they hoped would best ensure puffin capture, before collapsing the nets so they wouldn’t catch anything at night when no one was around to free them. After they were done we headed back to camp, pausing to watch the first puffins fly back to land. The birds were chubby and awkward in the air, as auks generally are. When they came to land, they splayed their orange feet, hitting the ground and tumbling forward on their bellies. But then they stood and shook themselves off. Gazing into the middle distance, the wind ruffling both the grass around them and the tufts on their heads, they cut comically serious figures. Or maybe it was seriously comic. A dash dignified, whatever else you could say about them.
A SUITE OF FACTORS has driven the puffin’s decline throughout its southern range. In June 1991, for instance, the Tenyo Maru, a Japanese fishing vessel, spilled over 400,000 gallons of fuel oil when it sank off Washington’s Cape Flattery. Thousands of seabirds died, including an estimated 9 percent of the state’s tufted puffins. Puffins are also caught, along with other creatures, as bycatch in regional fisheries, although how many suffer that fate is unknown.
The greater existential threats, however, are the changing oceanic conditions and large-scale declines in marine productivity. As the waters of the northeast Pacific trend warmer, the food web is changing, transforming. Species decrease in number or their ranges shift. Warm-water organisms move north from the south. Individual fish become skinnier and less nutritious. Puffins, as a result, are finding fewer sardines, anchovies, or herring, and thus have a harder time rearing their pufflings.
The problem for conservationists is that there are different ways to interpret their decline down here. One is at this more local scale — the scale of the colony, the scale of the now-empty rock, the scale of a state with less-puffined shores. This view is indeed dreary, marked as it is by steady downward trends and models predicting that Washington, Oregon, and California will lose the puffin altogether in the not-too-distant future. The other interpretation, which the USFWS applied — and is in fact legally obliged to use — is to consider the puffin’s wider geographies. According to this view, while local declines are unfortunate, they are not unendurable so long as plenty of puffins remain in Alaska.When this happens — when a species cedes the more extreme parts of its range but throngs still occupy core habitats — ecologists call it a “range contraction.” It is not an uncommon phenomenon, nor necessarily unnatural. But to dismiss it is unwise, for it can portend bigger problems for a species, especially in places where its populations are still considered healthy.
Washington, Oregon, and California will lose the puffin altogether in the not-too-distant future.
Petitioners had tried to circumvent the USFWS’s logic by asking the agency to consider the southern puffins as a distinct population segment — the approach, hinging on genetic differentiation, used to list several salmon runs on the West Coast as well as the southern resident killer whales of the Salish Sea under the ESA. The USFWS rejected this appeal, in part because there was no evidence the southern puffins are genetically distinct from those in Alaska.
This lack of evidence was the motivation for Gaydos and Pearson’s current endeavor. The general assumption is that puffins from all over the northeastern Pacific, including Alaska, mix haphazardly together during the winter. But, Gaydos and Pearson wondered, what if they don’t? Maybe the southern birds stick to their own patch of the sea, and the northern birds theirs. Maybe this, in turn, determines where they go to breed, and shapes how they respond evolutionarily to the differences of their separate worlds. Maybe these subtle differences amplify over the eons. If so, then the distinct-population argument strengthens, and the Pacific Northwest puffins become something to save after all.
EARLY THE NEXT MORNING — or later that first night, depending on how one interprets time — I was crouched in the bow of a rigid-hilled inflatable boat, or RHIB. It was 3 a.m., and Norris was piloting around Destruction; behind me, Vilchis sat. He and I both held spotlights. I swept mine over the water, my eyes as keen as they could be at that hour to whatever hint of puffin the beam might pick up.
We were trying on-water captures to augment the puffins we hoped to catch in the mist nets later. (“More is always better,” Pearson had said.) Ideally, Vilchis or I would spot a loafing puffin and trap it in the beam, like a deer in the headlights. There it would sit until Norris could drive the RHIB over to it, and we would scoop the bird from the water in a net and ferry it to shore, where Gaydos would affix the tag.
We had been out for 20 minutes or so and seen naught but rhinoceros auklets. Then, 50 yards to the right, I saw a larger black bird with a white face floating close to the rocky shore. “Puffin!” I yelled. “Three o’clock!” I jumped up —“Careful!” Norris barked — and illuminated the bird in my beam. Norris angled the RHIB towards it, but as he turned my beam strayed. The puffin took this opportunity to dive, disappearing in a flutter of water.
“Shoot,” Vilchis said, bringing his beam over to the vacated spot. “Well, now we watch to see where it comes up.”
We puttered around for one minute, two minutes, five, ten. Vilchis and I swept our lights far and wide, but we never saw the puffin again. We motored over to the other side of the island to try our luck closer to the puffin colony, but we couldn’t find any puffins there, either.
Norris drove from one side of the island to the other — back and forth, back and forth — for a couple of more hours, until the sun rose and it was too bright to sneak up on anything. So we called it a morning and went back to camp.
We didn’t catch any puffins in the mist nets in the morning, afternoon, or evening sessions. This, even though more than once they ensnared themselves, only to shake and shimmy and wriggle free of the net’s hold.
CONSERVATION BIOLOGY may be an applied science, which implies a practical bent, but conservation as an act is aspirational at its heart, even idealistic. Some organism is at risk of going extinct if things continue unchanged. Only by stopping or curtailing certain human behaviors, be it logging or fishing or draining an aquifer or pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for 200 years — the list could go on — do the odds of that organism’s survival improve even a little.
Ecological dynamics, on the other hand, can hardly be called idealistic. They tend instead to deal in binary outcomes: dead or alive, growing or shrinking, here or not here. But ecology can have its aspirational moments, too. Not to imply intent, but as an entity, a species is ambitious. It seeks to occupy as much space as it can, given its physiological requirements and the resources available.
You see this with the tufted puffin. It needs a safe place to nest and enough fish to eat. California, Oregon, and Washington represent the edge of territory and water that can minimally satisfy those needs. In this, these spaces are, for a puffin, aspirational. Yes, most of North America’s tufted puffins are in Alaska, where there are plenty of islands and rocks to burrow in, and lots of fish to eat. But for some time, a good number of puffins could stay in the south and make a home on the rugged sea stacks, sandstone cliffs, and windswept islands along the coastline abutting the California Current.
Often, that is how science works: bird by bird by bird.
Not for much longer though. But perhaps there is still a little room left for aspirational thinking.
Although it didn’t receive federal protection, the species has protected status in these three states. As Gaydos said, “There’s a kind of beauty in state listings.” For one thing, although a state may not have the full financial resources of the federal government or be in charge of as much land and water, as a polity it can act in congress with other states to make targeted interventions where a species needs help.
For the tufted puffins, Gaydos saw three pressure points: food availability, introduced species that affect nesting areas, and at-sea stressors, like derelict fishing gear or gillnet entanglements. These pressure points may seem like small potatoes compared to something as amorphous and all-encompassing as climate change, but for Gaydos that is not an excuse to do nothing. “It’s sort of like fighting cancer,” he said. “Even when you’re getting treatment, you still need to eat, to get exercise, to get your walks in.”
All three states have been targeting these pressure points as best they can, stepping up population monitoring efforts, and making plans to create marine reserves that protect important food sources or address fishing-related threats. Gaydos and Pearson’s tagging would offer more bits of knowledge so a fuller picture of puffin life could emerge, its needs year-round more clearly defined.
But first they had to catch one.
I WOULDN’T SAY WE WERE DESPAIRING, but by day three, an Even the best-laid plans… fatalism was starting to settle over everyone. “There’s a reason no one really knows this stuff yet,” Pearson had said after all the failed attempts. “Catching puffins is tough.” In a fit of inspiration, he had decided to cut one of the mist nets into pieces. He threaded those pieces over hoops he had fashioned out of spare wire, making a smaller, portable net. He planned to place the nets in individual burrow entrances to catch the birds when they returned to them.