CANNON BEACH — John Underwood has been coming to Cannon Beach with his family for the majority of his life. For the past 10 years, every time he and his wife, Ann, would take a walk on the beach they would approach the observer tasked with counting seabirds on Haystack Rock and ask the same question.
How are the puffins this year?
Every year, the answer he received was grim. But this year, when the observer said he’d seen only seven that day, Underwood and his wife walked back to their house and decided something needed to be done.
“I remember coming down to Cannon Beach as a kid to look at the rock, and remember hundreds of puffins,” Underwood said. “We can’t let this icon of Cannon Beach just disappear. We felt like we had to get engaged, to raise awareness.”
Haystack Rock still is home to Oregon’s largest tufted puffin colony. But research has shown a significant decline in the population of the small, black bird with golden plumes on its head and a bright orange beak.
After some brainstorming and a meeting with Haystack Rock Awareness Program coordinator Melissa Keyser, Underwood decided to donate $10,000 to launch the “Protect our Puffins” campaign this summer.
Soon, visitors and residents will see “Protect our Puffins” sweatshirts for sale at local businesses, Underwood said. All of the proceeds will go to fund informational brochures, research and an event next summer to raise awareness of the “puffin problem.”
“Hopefully it will have an impact on the birds,” said Underwood, a Bainbridge Island, Washington, resident and retired CEO of Darigold. “Each of us need to contribute in our own way, but we need to make people aware of what’s going on first.”
There are about 2.4 million puffins who breed in North America. While the Haystack Rock colony has stabilized the past few years in the low 100s, the population has been steadily declining for the past 20 years, said Shawn Stephensen, a wildlife biologist with the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
Twenty years ago, 5,000 of the birds were nesting on the Oregon Coast. Now it is just a few hundred, he said.
Stephensen has been monitoring puffins at Haystack Rock for the past six years. The way he does this is by observing the number of burrows puffins use to nest in, which between 2010 to 2016 dropped from 368 to 99, according to his study — a significant drop from the 612 counted in 1988.
It’s still too early to estimate this year’s population, Stephensen said, but the initial counts have not be high.
While he said formal research has yet to be conducted as to why the population is declining, he and other researchers believe it is due to a food shortage.
Because of various factors such as rising ocean temperature and acidification, smaller fish like herring are either becoming less plentiful or swimming deeper in the water to where puffins can no longer dive to retrieve them, he said. Even if there are other fish available, puffins could still be malnourished from eating less nutritious fish.
“They are a great indicator species of climate change. If they can’t find food, what else is changing?” Stephensen said.
Roy Lowe is a retired project leader for the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and spent much of his career conducting coastal surveys of seabirds like puffins.
He said while the decline is most notable in easily accessible places like Haystack Rock, there are nesting sites that have been hit even harder. Finley Rock by Oceanside in 1979 recorded almost 4,000 puffins. Today, he said, there are fewer nested there than at Haystack Rock.
“If puffins aren’t able to live in natural environment, it should be a warning,” Lowe said. “Birds evolve over millions of years, and if they can’t make a go of it in their environment something is seriously wrong.”
For years, seabird biologists have had the goal to add the tufted puffin to the federal endangered species list. Two years ago, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife voted to put the puffin on the endangered species list, and Oregon has it listed as a sensitive species.
This led Stephensen and other scientists from the Pacific Seabird Group to form a special technical committee dedicated to devoting time and dollars to researching why these birds are disappearing.
The team hopes to research population trends, genetic studies, wintering patterns and detailed food analysis — all types of data not being collected about puffins in the region.
There is a list of criteria a species must meet before being considered endangered. He said doing more expansive research will hopefully help qualify the puffin as a candidate.
They will seek funding through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but might have to look at grants to continue the expanded projects, he said.
“We’ll probably find it’s not just one issue,” Stephensen said. “It will be many issues, whether it be ocean acidity, human disturbance, lack of fish, what have you.”
But a place to start is by funding volunteer groups like the Haystack Rock Awareness Project, Stephensen said, which state and national entities rely on heavily to help preserve and record local seabird populations.
For Underwood, he hopes to work with Keyser to fund research projects like the ones proposed in the Pacific Seabird Group through the sale of his sweatshirts.
“Hopefully we’ll have to order some more sweatshirts,” Underwood said.