There are some who say you haven’t truly seen Iceland until you’ve visited the Westman Islands.
Located off the country’s southern coast, the islands were formed by volcanic eruptions over the past 10,000 to 12,000 years and are wonders of nature.
While all but one of the islands remain uninhabited by humans, they are home to at least 30 species of birds, 150 types of plans, and 80 varieties of insects.
Perhaps most notably, Iceland’s Westman Islands are also the location of the largest puffin colony in the world, at least for the time being.
Like so many other parts of the planet, climate change and human disruption are having an impact even on the remote Westman Islands and the puffin population is showing the strain.
During the summer of 2018, thousands of puffin chicks, or pufflings, died of starvation according to a report in Iceland Review.
A team of UK researchers that later investigated the deaths attributed them to global warming and fishing.
More specifically, scientists believe rising ocean temperatures are forcing cold-water fish that the puffins feed on further north, making food increasingly scarce in the seabirds’ traditional breeding grounds.
The food decline is compounded by the trawling of small fish such as sprats and sand eels, which the puffins like to eat. The impact of these two challenges has played out in numerous troubling ways.
“Some years the eggs don’t hatch, and the chicks only survive for a short time. I was in the Westman islands last week, for example, and we found a whole lot of tiny, newly-hatched pufflings there, which had most likely died of starvation,” Dr. Annette Fayet, a puffin specialist from the University of Oxford said during an interview, according to Iceland Review.
And although they’re on the endangered species list, the puffin population faces a further threat from hunting. Puffin meat is still eaten in Iceland, a practice Fayet called “unjustifiable” given the decline of the bird’s population.
Fayet suggested during her interview that without immediate protective measures the puffin population will face extinction.
Ryan Connolly, co-founder of Hidden Iceland, has watched with dismay as this drama has unfolded and the puffin population has declined. Now he’s hoping to raise awareness of the issue among tourists, inspiring them to become evangelists to help protect the birds and ensure their survival.
“When it comes to climate change, people need to see the impacts to have a more visceral reaction. When they see glaciers melting, when I walk them to a glacier and show them the melting ice, it leaves a vision in their mind that climate change is really happening,” Connolly told TravelPulse during a recent interview. “With puffins, we need to do the same thing. When they come and see them and I explain that because the temperature of the water is rising, their food source is disappearing, it creates a visual memory for the visitor.”
Ideally, such visitors will go home and spread the word about what they’ve seen, making others aware that the puffin decline is a climate change issue and something needs to be done.
Connolly, who has long been vocal about how to visit Iceland responsibly, has additional advice for tourists who want to help protect puffins: don’t eat puffin meat when touring Iceland.
Though it’s not widely served, puffin meat is still available in luxury restaurants and other places as a novelty or a delicacy similar to caviar.
“While one person eating puffin is going to have just a small effect, if everyone is doing it and everyone keeps trying it, then people will still keep hunting it,” Connolly explained.
Ultimately, Connolly hopes the government will step in and take a more proactive approach to protect the puffins, such as banning hunting of the birds and reducing fishing in areas where puffins feed.
He’s not alone in that wish.
Last May Iceland Magazine reported that the Icelandic bird conservation society Fuglavernd would request a complete ban on the sale of the meat of seabirds. Most of the puffin (and whale meat for that matter) sold at Icelandic restaurants is purchased by foreign visitors.
Erpur Snaer Hansen, an ornithologist, and campaigner for the conservation of seabirds said far too much puffin meat is served at Reykjavik restaurants
“What kind of moral compass do you need to have to flood the market with this meat, acting as if everything is fine and dandy, just to make a quick buck?” Hansen told the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service.
Puffin hunting is currently banned in all parts of Iceland, except in the north. In those places where a ban has been implemented – south, west and east Iceland – there have been noticeable population improvements, Hansen has told media outlets.
However, in the north, the practice continues.
There are some scientific organizations and papers predicting that without some change in the various factors impacting the puffins, their population may very well drop by as much as 79 percent by 2065. The IUCN Red List suggests measures that are needed to protect puffins include resource and habitat protection; site area management; compliance and enforcement; and increased awareness and communication.
For his part, Connolly, of Hidden Iceland, points out that the bird colonies continue to be a significant tourist attraction and thus an important revenue generator for the country. In light of such a reality, he suggests that it’s in the government’s best interest to increase protection of the colonies and end hunting once and for all.
“When people come here during the winter, they always want to see the northern lights and the ice caves. But when it comes to the summer, sometimes visitors say they want to see the midnight sun or go hiking to see glaciers, but they always say they want to see the puffins, especially when kids are involved,” concluded Connolly.
For now, at least, there are still puffin colonies to visit. But that may not always be the case.
Hidden Iceland Tours That Include Puffin Viewing:
The company’s Westman Islands Day Trip takes visitors to the biggest puffin breeding ground in the world as well as to a puffin rescue center.
There’s also a four-day West Fjords trip that allows visitors to experience a longer adventure around the forgotten northwest where large puffin colonies nest on cliff tops.
Hidden Iceland’s South Coast: Fire & Ice and two-day Glacier Lagoon trips stop at the Black Sand Beach where there’s a small puffin colony.
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