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The Race to Save East Coast Eiders

Researchers address puzzling concerns as the Atlantic population of the popular sea duck plummets.

The Race to Save East Coast Eiders

Climate change, environmental pollution, predation, and other factors are having a significant impact on the East Coast population of the common eider. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

It’s just after daybreak, the generous sea is calm and cold as the chilly fog tightly hugs the rockweed-covered ledges. Bell buoys chime gently as we navigate our fleet through ancient rock outcroppings and lobster buoys. After a 15-minute face-numbing boat ride, we know we’ve reached our destination as rafts of common eiders lift off the water and begin whizzing by. Anchors are strategically set to accommodate the rising tide and several gang-rigged decoy sets are deployed. A few longline strings are added to the upwind side to complete the spread. We motor off to drift nearby and await the eiders to return to join our fakes.

If you’ve hunted sea ducks along the coast of Maine, this should all sound familiar. And while we are targeting the iconic ‘Maine-stay’ sea duck, the common eider, today’s quest is a ‘catch-and-release’ hunt. We’re capturing and monitoring birds as part of a new international research cooperative to better understand why the Atlantic population of common eider continues to decline.

Biodiversity Research Institute eider study
The team sets decoys and nets to capture eiders as part of a large international cooperative study. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

The research project is spearheaded and funded by Environment Canada—the country’s national wildlife agency—with cooperators from the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI), state wildlife agencies, university researchers, and others. Various members of these organizations and several local volunteers have gathered for this mission in Casco Bay—just outside of Portland, Maine—to deploy decoys and mist nets to capture eiders, collect data, and implant transmitters before returning the birds to the water as they begin nesting.

A Bird in the Hand

Each spring, from Newfoundland to Maine, eiders gather to breed. The ground-nesting hens incubate their eggs along the vegetated, rocky shorelines, typically during the month of May. As if life on the big water wasn’t hard enough, eiders face never-ending threats to survival. Hens fiercely guard their nests against avian and ground-dwelling predators and have been observed not leaving their vigils at all, not even to eat or drink during their 26- to 28-day incubation. If ducklings make it to hatch, they face the same predators and become subject to disease, environmental contamination, and other threats. However, it’s not all doom-and-gloom. Eider populations and nesting success remains relatively high to increasing farther north in the northern Canadian Maritime provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, presenting a puzzling question. What is happening here in the Gulf of Maine and where have all the eiders gone?

A key player in this concerted conservation effort is Lucas Savoy, director of the waterfowl program at BRI, whose animated ardor inspires the entire crew. “This particular study is aimed at monitoring hen nesting propensity. We have a lot of information about eiders, but there are a few missing elements such as what proportion of the population will nest in a given year. A difficult winter, age, health, environmental, and other factors may explain why not every hen will nest every year. There’s a concern for the population’s integrity and we’re looking at a number of parameters to identify why.”

Savoy astutely stares out into the survey area and elaborates that additional information will also be gathered using the satellite transmitters to track post-nest dispersal, feeding patterns, habitat use, migration, and other important biological information—all at an incredible, never-before-seen, high-level of detail. The goal of this study is to better understand the limiting factors here in the eider’s southern breeding range by comparing the data to eiders in the northern reaches of the breeding area.

After the collection of field measurements and the placement of a shiny new leg band, eiders are taken to the BRI lab in Portland where a wildlife veterinarian surgically implants a satellite transmitter into each hen. While in the lab, feather, fecal, and blood samples are collected to detect for parasites, diseases, and contaminants, as well to examine diet and analyze genetics. This data will be compared to breeding eiders in the northern limits of the study in northern Canada. Once the quick procedure is completed, the hens are returned with their male counterparts to the capture site to initiate their nesting cycle and begin transmitting data.

Biodiversity Research Institute study eider hen
Hen eiders were implanted with GPS tracking devices to monitor their post-nest dispersal and habitat use along the coast of Maine. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

In Hot Water

Brad Allen has been a wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for over 40 years. A simpered smile emerges though his salt-seasoned, grizzly gray beard revealing his admiration for these alluring sea birds. “Their life history is fascinating and so much different than other birds. The more I study them, the more I’ve come to appreciate them.” Our capture setup is focused on a particular state-owned island where Allen has spent several decades working with eiders. “Historically, we’ve documented over 600 nesting hens on this island, but now there’s about half that number as the Gulf of Maine continues to warm with climate change—it’s up two to three degrees since 2012,” added Allen. This warming has resulted in a significant reduction of the blue mussel population, the eider’s staple food source.  But it’s not just mussels and eider that are disappearing. Oysters, lobsters, and the sport and commercial fishery have also experienced a decline in quantity and quality. Sadly, the water temperature in the Gulf of Maine is rising faster than anywhere else on the entire planet.

Looking to retain abundant numbers of eider and other sea ducks along the East Coast, the Atlantic flyway saw major changes to the 2016 sea duck season when the duration was cut from 107 to 60 days and the bag limit dropped from seven to five birds. Allen and neighboring state wildlife agencies have monitored the harvest numbers since the amendment and noted the changes have not made a difference. When asked what’s next Allen added, “The next phase may look a little more drastic to hunters, but the goal is to reduce the harvest of sea ducks, so we have to be more conservative without eliminating sea duck hunting altogether.”

Biodiversity Research Institute study eider hen
Wildlife managers, researchers, and hunters alike are all anxious for answers to what is happening to Maine eiders. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

A Changing Tide

Also on board to support this mission, and serving as a voice for hunters, is Eddie Saltalamacchia. As a passionate New England sea duck aficionado who spends many winter days hunting along the East Coast, he’s become so enthralled with their pursuit that he created Salty Fowl. As a sea duck lifestyle brand with a mission to increase awareness and advocacy for sea ducks and sea duck research, Eddie proudly donates 20 percent of his profits to the Biodiversity Research Institute. His fervid zeal for sea duck hunting and conservation is nothing short of contagious as he humbly holds the last captured hen eider of the day.

Unless you are a regular saltwater wayfarer, a beautiful bull eider may be nothing but a trophy to hang on your wall, but these unique and handsome birds are an icon of the region and symbolize a lifestyle for so many. Join the race and get involved in supporting sea duck conservation and research. Check out the Sea Duck Joint Venture and Biodiversity Research Institute or contact your local Atlantic flyway state wildlife agency or regional waterfowl conservation organization to learn more about ongoing research activities and contribution opportunities. Today’s troubled waters may calm and bring future optimism through advancing research and conservation collaboration to ensure that eiders, sea ducks, and all cherished waterfowl species remain at sustainable populations for future generations.  


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