Archived 2015 topics: Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) – uplist from Least Concern to Endangered?

Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica breeds from NE & E Canada and NE USA east through Greenland to Jan Mayen, Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya, and south to Iceland, Fennoscandia, Faroes, Britain, Ireland and NW France; it winters at sea, mostly in boreal waters south to New Jersey, Canary Island and W Mediterranean (Nettleship et al. 2014). It is currently listed as Least Concern, because when last assessed it was not thought to approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under any of the IUCN Red List criteria.

Globally, it has an extremely large range in both the breeding season (>1.6 million km2) and in winter (>17 million km2), and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criteria (B and D2). Its population size is also extremely large (c. 12–14 million mature individuals; Harris & Wanless 2011; Berglund & Hentati-Sundberg 2014), and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criteria (C and D1). Therefore, the only potentially relevant criterion is A, which relates to reductions in population size. Until recently, the population was thought to be declining slowly, but not sufficiently rapidly to approach the threshold for listing as Vulnerable under criterion A (at least a 30% decline over ten years or three generations, whichever is longer).

New data collated from across Europe for the European Red List of Birds (BirdLife International 2015) indicate that the species has declined significantly in recent years, and that this decline is ongoing. A combination of official data reported by 27 EU Member States to the European Commission under Article 12 of the EU Birds Directive and comparable data from other European countries, provided by BirdLife Partners and other leading national ornithologists, suggests that the European population has declined markedly since the end of the last century, and is currently estimated and projected to be declining overall at a rate of 50–79% over three generations (65 years, based on a generation length estimated by BirdLife to be 21.6 years). This large projected decline is driven largely by recent declines in Iceland and Norway, which together hold c. 80% of the European population, but there is also evidence that the third largest national population (in the UK) has probably declined since 2000 too (Harris and Wanless 2011). Consequently, the species is now classified as Endangered at European level under criterion A4 (BirdLife International 2015).

Based on the latest population estimates (Harris & Wanless 2011, Berglund & Hentati-Sundberg 2014), Europe holds >90% of the global population, so the projected declines in Europe are globally significant. No recent information about the overall trend of the West Atlantic population is available. Given the threats affecting the species in different parts of its range (e.g. Harris & Wanless 2011, Nettleship et al. 2014), the steep ongoing declines in Iceland (E. Hanssen in litt. 2014) and Norway (Fauchald et al. 2015), and projected future declines, this species appears to qualify for uplisting to globally Endangered under criterion A.

Comments on this proposal are welcome, along with any data regarding recent trends in other regions, and any additional information about the threats currently affecting this species across its range.


Berglund, P. A. & Hentati-Sundberg, J. (2014). Arctic Seabirds Breeding in the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) Area: Status and Trends 2014. AEWA Conservation Status Report (CSR6) background report.

BirdLife International (2015) European Red List of Birds. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

Fauchald P, Anker-Nilssen T, Barrett RT, Bustnes JO, Bårdsen B-J, Christensen-Dalsgaard S, Descamps S, Engen S, Erikstad KE, Hanssen SA, Lorentsen S-H, Moe B, Reiertsen TK, Strøm H, Sys-tad GH (2015) The status and trends of seabirds breeding in Nor-way and Svalbard – NINA Report 1151. 84 pp.

Nettleship, D.N., Kirwan, G.M., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (2014). Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2014). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

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14 Responses to Archived 2015 topics: Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) – uplist from Least Concern to Endangered?

  1. Ian Burfield (BirdLife) says:

    The following information about this species in Iceland was kindly provided by Gudmundur A. Gudmundsson during the compilation of the European Red List:

    The most recent Puffin population estimate is 2,024,000 pairs (±329,400 95% CI) by Hansen et al. (2014, in prep.). This is new but partly based on old data, and reflects the stable situation before the sandeel crash (i.e. prior to 2005). It is much more robust than the former guesstimates of 2-3 (Ministry for the Environment 1992) and 3-4 (BirdLife International 2004) million pairs in Iceland. The present estimate is based on density data of burrows and area of all major colonies, of which the bulk of data, other than from the Westman Islands, dates from the early 1990s. The breeding of puffins in the main haunts in South and West has more or less failed every year since 2005. Burrow attendance has varied, sometimes reaching normal levels, but invariably followed by desertion. Although a longlived species, recruitment has been negligible in the main colonies for the last 10 years. Breeding success has been much better in North and East Iceland. Overall short term trend has definitely been a decrease (ca. 20% since 2003 or 2% per year, Erpur S. Hansen pers. comm. 2015). There are no reliable data available on long term trends other than hunting statistics, which show fluctuations but overall stability prior to the crash in 2005.

    BirdLife International 2004. Birds in Europe: population estimates, trends and conservation status. Cambridge, U.K.: BirdLife International. BirdLife Conservation Series No. 12.
    Hansen, E.S., A. Garðarsson & K. Lilliendahl 2014. The size of the population of Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica breeding in Iceland. Poster, Oxford.
    Hansen, E.S., A. Garðarsson & K. Lilliendahl (in prep.). The size of the population of Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica breeding in Iceland.
    Ministry for the Environment 1992. Iceland: National report to UNCED. Reykjavik, Umhverfisráðuneytið.

  2. Ian Burfield (BirdLife) says:

    A new long-term study (Miles et al. 2015) of a large puffin colony on Shetland, UK, suggests that numbers breeding there have halved from about 20,000 to 10,000 individuals since 1986. Researchers believe the most likely cause of the decline in the colony on the Fair Isle was young birds failing to return, possibly because of a lack of fish to feed on. The study also considered the possible impact of Great Skuas, which have increased by about 300% on Fair Isle in the same period. Despite this increase, adult Puffin survival on the island has remained high and stable.

  3. Mike Harris and Sarah Wanless says:

    Although numbers of puffins in the southwest of Britain and probably the North Sea are currently increasing, there is no doubt that elsewhere numbers are declining, particularly in regions traditionally viewed as the puffin’s stronghold eg Iceland and Norway. Nevertheless, the puffin is still an abundant species and is likely to remain common for many years so to describe it as ‘Endangered’, defined as ‘being at a very high risk of extinction’, seems to be scare-mongering and to devalue the term.
    Common sense, rather than the need to pigeonhole every species using rigid rules, suggests that the puffin should have a lower classification. There are two levels between its current ‘Least Concern’ and the proposed ‘Endangered’. Either ‘Vulnerable’ or ‘Near threatened’ might be a better classification. People in Norway, Iceland or the Faroes might disagree but then we wonder how many people in eastern Canada would consider the puffin as at risk of extinction.

  4. I can certainly understand Mike’s and Sarah’s opinion on the matter, but in the context of IUCN red listing I find it difficult not to apply the established scoring system as far as possible. When trying to do so, I still fail to conclude that the Atlantic puffin deserves to be listed as EN. My reasoning is as follows: The long-term negative trend for Atlantic puffins in Norway is mainly attributed to the decrease in Røst (Norwegian Sea) where breeding numbers have dropped by 80% from 1.437 to 0.285 million pairs since monitoring started in 1979 (various refs. and own unpubl. data). Unfortunately, not many Norwegian colonies are being monitored, but severe decrease has not been recorded for any of the other large colonies. The colony at Gjesvær near the North Cape (Barents Sea), which is similar in size to that in Røst, has remained stable since monitoring started in 1990, and the colony at Runde (just north of the North Sea border) is close to its level in the early 1980s although it was larger during the late 1980s and 1990s. Recent calculations reported by the SEAPOP programme estimate the Norwegian population at 1.465 million breeding pairs in 2013 (Fauchald et al. 2015), which is 14.5% lower than the previous estimate of 1.714 million pairs made 8-9 years earlier (Barrett et al. 2006). Given the low number of colonies monitored, these figures should only be considered as rough estimates. As there are no clear indications the population has lost more than the 1.15 million pairs that have disappeared from Røst, the overall drop in population size since 1979 is thus in the order of 44% (1.15/(1.465+1.15)). Considering the current sizes of the Icelandic and Norwegian populations, a loss of 20% of the Icelandic population since 2003 and a general lack of Faroese and Icelandic monitoring data from the 20th century, these calculations can only justify to list the puffin as VU, i.e. that between 50% and 70% the population still remains after the three last generations.

    Barrett, R.T., Lorentsen, S.-H. & Anker-Nilssen, T. 2006. The status of seabirds breeding in mainland Norway. -Atlantic Seabirds 8: 97-126.

    Fauchald, P., Anker-Nilssen, T., Barrett, R.T., Bustnes, J.O., Bårdsen, B.J., Christensen-Dalsgaard, S., Descamps, S., Engen, S., Erikstad, K.E., Hanssen, S.A., Lorentsen, S.-H., Moe, B., Reiertsen, T.K., Strøm, H., Systad, G.H. 2015. The status and trends of seabirds breeding in Norway and Svalbard. Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, NINA Report 1151, 84 pp.

  5. Carles Carboneras says:

    While Anker-Nilssen’s comments and the data he provides make a lot of sense, I would still be slightly cautious before deviating from the outcome of the direct result of the Red List assessment. The original BirdLife post stated that, given that other criteria (range or population size) did not apply, the only potentially relevant criterion is A, which relates to reductions in population size. However, this is not limited to empirical data on observed variations in population size over time, especially if better information is available. The goal is to be able to predict the evolution of the population in the timeframe of 3 generations and, to this end, demographic models are clearly more useful than the linear projection of the observed or calculated trends.

    The work of Miles et al. (PLoS ONE, 2015) highlights the demographic impact of insufficient recruitment of new breeders due to maintained breeding failure. As I understand, quite a few breeding areas apart from Røst (namely S and W Iceland (see post by Gudmundsson), also Faeroes) have had negligible very low or null breeding output of Puffins for about a decade now. The species’ assessment would have to take into account this important demographic aspect, and factor in its role in the projection of its global population to 3 generations. It is not for me to judge how widespread or serious the demographic problem is but, inevitably, those populations with insufficient recruitment will be heading towards decline in the future.

    Finally, for those who may not be too familiar with the IUCN criteria, I would like to emphasise that the assessment is not based on the observed but on the predicted population trend. Those two parameters are known to differ locally, regionally or globally for several species (e.g., Balearic Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus, Lammergeier Gypaetus barbatus), providing evidence that there is no immediate translation of a species observed decline to its IUCN Red List category.

    Miles WTS, Mavor R, Riddiford NJ, Harvey PV, Riddington R, Shaw DN, et al. (2015) Decline in an Atlantic Puffin Population: Evaluation of Magnitude and Mechanisms. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0131527. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0131527

  6. I fully agree that when looking ahead it is important to account for the last 9-10 years of almost complete reproduction failures reported from both Vestmannaeyjar and the Faroes, as well as in Røst. However, even if these three populations should be completely lost over the next three generations (which I certainly do not expect), a simple calculation still suggests that about 70% of the world population would remain, should all other colonies retain their numbers. I arrived at this figure simply by first adjusting the population table on page 69 of “The Puffin” (Harris & Wanless 2012) with the new estimates for Norway and Iceland presented above, which reduces the world population to about 5 million pairs, and then remove the current about 1.5 million pairs of the three populations mentioned. Thus, it is very difficult to arrive at EN without any clear indications that at least another 1.0 million pairs is likely to disappear within 2070. When disregarding the three populations that certainly are having severe problems, I fail to see that such a scenario has any reasonable support in the long-term data on population trends or breeding success collected so far. Thus, VU seems to me a much more valid assessment, and it is certainly possible also to argue for NT.

  7. Small correction: “The Puffin” was of course published in 2011. Time runs fast!

  8. W.R.P. Bourne says:

    It would be preposterous to describe one of the commonest seabirds of the northern hemisphere, a “lemming of the sea”, as endangered. Puffins have a long record of local fluctuation in numbers and breeding success with little permanent overall effect, despite frequent expressions of concern Suggest wait until there are less than a million left..

  9. Alv Ottar Folkestad says:

    In his evidence, Tycho (July 25 comment) says that, while not many Norwegian colonies are being monitored, a “severe decrease has not been recorded for any of the other large colonies”. He adds that the “colony at Runde… is close to its level in the early 1980s although it was larger during the late 1980s and 1990s.”
    However, the situation at Runde is more serious than described. Having monitored plots on Runde for over 35 years, it’s not the case that the decline of the puffin has only taken the population there back to the level of the early 1980s, rather it has now fallen much lower than the 1980s level.

    Total numbers from the Runde study plots, established in 1979 with the guidance of Mike Harris, showed a rather fixed level during the 1980s, then an increase by 10-15% from 1995 to 2003. From then on there has been a marked decline in total numbers to a level about 50% lower than during the late 1990s (maximum 799 active burrows in 1999) and slightly more than a 40% decline compared to the 1980s. In the 1980s there were about 700 active burrows, close to 800 in the late 1990s, but only about 400 active burrows in recent years.

    Productivity during the first years of monitoring (1979-1983) ranged from 0.74 to 0.85 chick per pair (an exception was 1980 when it was only 0.50), confirming very good conditions which were probably responsible for the subsequent population increase. We have no reproduction figures after that until the SEAPOP programme was established at Runde from 2007 onwards. During recent years there have been several bad breeding seasons, with total failures or close to that, and nothing comparable to 1979-1983, at least not until this year when we have recorded high food transport activity with good fish-loads brought into the colony, though not generating breeding productivity as high as that seen in the early 1980s.

  10. According to the SEAPOP database (www.seapop,no), the puffin population on Runde in 2013 was at 80.5% of its 1980 level. That is not a severe decrease, even when considering generation time. According to the annual report no data were collected in 2014, and the results for 2015 have not yet been reported. The peak level in 1999 was 58.8% higher than that in 1980, so (as I also mentioned) there has certainly been a huge drop over the last 15 years. Nevertheless, there is still no available evidence of a 40% decrease compared to the initial level. As far as I know, all these results are based on Mike’s original plots. Population size is of course also important in this context. To my knowledge, no reasonably accurate census of the Runde population has ever been made and published. If we apply the guesstimate of 50,000-100,000 pairs reported by Røv et al. (1984) that both Alv Ottar and I co-authored, it would be reasonable to believe it is now in the order of 60,000 pairs. I just spotted that the SEAPOP database actually contains an estimate of 100,000 pairs from 2013 that I was totally unaware of and do not know the origin of. My conclusion is still that the overall loss of puffins on Runde since 1980 is no higher than 15,000-20,000 pairs, which is not very significant when compared to e.g. a possibly slight increase in the Barents Sea area over the same period (Fauchald et al. 2015; to a large extent explained by a steep increase at Hornøya). As the Runde colony is at least ten times larger than any other Norwegian puffin colony south of Lovunden, even a 40% decrease would have had no huge impact on the assessment that I made in my previous comment, and which I still think stands on solid ground.

    Røv, N. (ed.), Thomassen, J., Anker-Nilssen, T., Barrett, R., Folkestad, A.O. & Runde, O. 1984. Sjøfuglprosjektet 1979-1984. Directorate for Nature Management, Trondheim, Viltrapport 35, 109 pp.

  11. Andy Symes (BirdLife) says:

    Preliminary proposals

    Based on available information, our preliminary proposal for the 2015 Red List would be to treat:

    Atlantic Puffin as Vulnerable under criterion A4.

    There is now a period for further comments until the final deadline of 31 August, after which the recommended categorisation will be put forward to IUCN.

    The final Red List categories will be published on the BirdLife website in late October and on the IUCN website in November, following further checking of information relevant to the assessments by both BirdLife and IUCN.

  12. Alv Ottar Folkestad says:

    Tycho and I are using the same puffin study plot counts from Runde, Norway 1980-2015. The very first counts were made 1980, and the figures from that year were ab. 20 % lower than the lowest counts during the following 27 years, and 25 % lower than the mean for the following three years. I suspect there may have been some sort of methodologically mistake that single year, but even the puffin reproduction 1980 at Runde was markedly lower than in 1979 and 1981-1983 (0.52 versus 0.74-0.86). To my opinion it would be more relevant to look at the level of counts during successive years. If we are looking at the mean figures from successive five year’s periods from 1980 until 2015, the level was more or less stable from 1981 to 1994, thereafter an increase at ab. 15 % until the peak level 2000. From then on there has been a steady decline year by year until 2015, close to 50 % lower counts compared to the peak level, and just more than 40 % decline compared to the level from early 1980-ies to 1994. Of course there are reasons to question the methodology of using active burrows as an indicator of population trends in years and periods of breeding failure compared to years with high reproductive output. From Runde there are reproduction figures for the first five years of monitoring, and from 2007 onwards. 1979-83 breeding success was good except in 1980. In 2007-2015 there were four years with complete failure or close to, and five years with moderate breeding success (0.4-0.6). Furthermore the northernmost puffin study plot on the island has been empty since 2001 and the next two plots southwards have been reduced by ab. 90 % from 2009 onwards compared to the 1980-ies. By 1979 the puffin colonies covered ab. 2.3 km of the western slopes of Runde, with additional sub colonies and scattered groups along 1 km of the north faced slopes of the island. There have been no breeding puffins along the north face since ab. 2000, and on the west side of the island the puffin colonies today are located only along 1.3 km of the western sea-front. Even this is consistent with the trends of the study plot counts. As Tycho underlines Runde has by far been the largest puffin colony in Norway south of Lovunden. What is happening there is not only a question of the influence in a national or global scale, but the regional effect along approximately 1000 km of the Norwegian coast south of Lovunden.

  13. I appreciate Alv Ottar’s more detailed assessment of the trends at Runde, but in this context we need to consider trends over much larger areas with a uniform approach. As trends and breeding conditions for puffins have proven to vary considerably between different sea areas along the Norwegian coast, it is both sensible and legitimate to compare present day population size with that in the first year of monitoring (1980). The ideal approach would of course be to compare against area-specific reference levels derived by ecological reasoning for what the population sizes should have been (i.e., given no human impact), but we do not have the knowledge to do that at the scales involved here.

    By the way, we found and corrected the error in the database for Runde; the assessment of 100,000 pairs appeared to be from 1994 (not 2013) and was made by the local division of BirdLife Norway. Applying the plot counts to this figure would suggest about 72,000 pairs in 1980 and 58,000 pairs in 2013, a difference of 14,000 pairs.

  14. Andy Symes (BirdLife) says:

    Recommended categorisation to be put forward to IUCN

    Following further review, there have been no changes to our preliminary proposal for the 2015 Red List status of this species.

    The final categorisation will be published on the BirdLife website in late October and on the IUCN website in November, following further checking of information relevant to the assessment by BirdLife and IUCN.

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