Things are getting harder for Maine’s threatened seabird populations due to global climate change.

“90% of the puffin and over 85% of the tern chicks on Petit Manan Island died this summer,” said wildlife biologist Linda Welch of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “Some of the other islands did a bit better, but overall, the lack of food and poor weather resulted in low productivity rates for the terns and puffins.”

A puffin chick. Courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

She said the birds are struggling to find the fish that serve as food for their chicks due to warming water temperatures. Meanwhile cold, rainy weather events have killed chicks that did not have time to grow their protective feathers. With only down to cover them, they can suffer hypothermia.

“There is something very alarming that I have not seen before,” said Welch, a 24-year veteran of the service.

She said many of the chicks are underweight by about 40 percent and half the size they should be in terms of length or height.

The seabirds, which were already classified as “threatened” in Maine, rely on herring, hake and sand lance to feed their chicks. Increasing temperatures in the Gulf of Maine may be driving the fish deeper than the birds can dive for them or further offshore, Welch said.

She said Maine’s waters are warming faster than 99 percent of the other oceans on the planet.

An adult common tern offers a chick a butterfish. Biologists say this species of fish is too large for the chick to swallow, and the chicks will eventually starve if this is the only species the adults can find. Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Islands that serve as vital habitat off the coast including Matinicus Rock, Seal Island and Petit Manan are protected as part of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Across these islands, chicks have been on the decline. It is part of a trend over the past 10 years.

The only good news is that puffins have a long lifespan of up to 30 years and it is possible for them to bounce back after a bad year, but Welch notes there have now been multiple bad years.

Agencies work to protect the habitats by closing the nesting grounds to the public, keeping out predators including gulls, owls and ravens and managing plant life, but Welch said it is unlikely they would take the step of feeding the birds.

Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge manages 73 seabird islands.

“It can be frustrating that we can’t easily fix climate change, but there certainly are lots of people trying to make the situation better,” she said. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to provide suitable nesting habitat for the seabirds, on islands that are free from predators and human disturbance. That way, when the weather and food situation improve, the birds will have a better chance of nesting successfully.”