CANNON BEACH — In July, John Underwood donated his time and money to create and sell sweatshirts with the mission “Protect our Puffins” embedded on the front.
The goal was to raise the profile of and money for the Haystack Rock Awareness Program. It was his way of trying to help after hearing how the tufted puffin population has declined for the past 20 years.
Almost six months later, the money raised from the sweatshirts — which totals more than $4,000 — will help fund research to figure out why.
During a talk Wednesday at Cannon Beach Library, Shawn Stephenson, a wildlife biologist with the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex, gave a presentation about the town’s iconic seabird.
Stephenson is waiting to hear back from a research grant that would allow him and other biologists to collect blood samples and study migration patterns more thoroughly than any other study done in Oregon in the past couple of decades. If awarded, 80 percent of the money raised for the sweatshirts would go to match the grant.
“Getting that info gives us more power to get these birds onto the threatened species list, where they’ll get more protections,” Stephenson said. “There is something going on here — they’re not just moving out.”
The tufted puffin population on the West Coast has been on the decline for more than 20 years, Stephenson said. In the 1990s, 5,000 of the birds were nesting on the Oregon Coast. Today, it is just a few hundred. Despite the fact Haystack Rock still hosts more than 85 percent of the puffin population in Oregon, last year only 124 puffins were counted — a sharp decline from the 612 recorded in 1988.
Stephenson has a few guesses as to why. Rising ocean temperatures could be driving the type of fish puffins eat deeper into the water, past depths where the puffins can dive. But without more research, he can’t say for sure.
In the last 20 years, there have been no significant studies done on puffins in Oregon beyond monitoring population size, Stephenson said, partially due to limited federal funding.
“It’s not going to be just one thing,” he said.
Securing the grant would allow researchers to collect blood samples, which could reveal more information about what puffins eat and their genetic history, Stephenson said. That could lead to revelations about any illnesses or subspecies that could affect the colonies. It would also finance transmitters, which could track migration patterns to determine how far the birds need to go out to find food.
Answering these questions are some of the first steps to solving the problem of why fewer and fewer puffins are returning to Haystack Rock.
“No one wants to be at U.S. Fish and Wildlife when puffins blip out. I want to be able to say I helped recover them,” Stephenson said.
The other 20 percent of the sweatshirt proceeds will be geared toward educational programs offered through Haystack Rock Awareness Program, program coordinator Melissa Keyser said.
The programs include events like the “Puffin Welcome” hosted for kindergartners, as well as expanding the annual “Puffin Walk” in the first week of July.
“In the past, we’ve done more basic outreach with our basic beach routine,” Keyser said. “We want to amp up this event with more activities and a guest speaker with these funds to educate people as to why populations are declining.”
Keyser said she is excited to see the community engaged with the fundraiser.
“We want to make sure our educators are educated and those who are interested have the resources to know how to educate themselves when it comes to this issue,” Keyser said. “The more we know, the more we know what we can do.”