Puffins not the only sea birds struggling in Washington

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Some sea birds in Washington state are struggling.

Last week, the Seattle Times released a story detailing the plight of the tufted puffin in Washington and Oregon. The puffin's Washington population was reported as falling from 25,000 in 1984 to 3,000 in 2009.

Trina Bayard, the director of bird conservation at Audubon Washington, said a large part of the puffin's decline is related to a drop in food. Puffins thrive on small forage fish such as herring. As herring numbers decrease in the Puget Sound and the Straight of Juan de Fuca, so do the puffins.

"Just like people, birds need food," Bayard said. "They need enough food, they need access to that food and different kinds of food."

Bayard said other contributing factors such as a rise in bald eagles - a puffin predator - and increased pollution and habitat loss have impacted the striking bird.

It's not just the puffin, either. Plenty of other Washington sea birds that depend on forage fish like the herring are struggling.

Bayard said the marbled murrelet is an example of another threatened sea bird. Marbled murrelet lay a single egg in old-growth forests, then fly out to sea for food. The combination of lack of food and habitat destruction is making the bird disappear.

"This is a really unique sea bird," Bayard said.

In 2016, about 300 rhinoceros auklets - closely related to the puffin - were found dead in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The cause of their death isn't known.

As a whole, sea birds are a great indicator species on the health of Puget Sound, Bayard said. As their numbers drop, it's time to look at the health of the water that surrounds us, she said.