June 07, 2023
Let’s rip the Band-Aid off right away: In certain regions, several species of sea duck populations are declining due to a variety of reasons, ranging from climate change and pollution to predation and human disturbance among other factors—and we need to add bird flu now, too. Sea ducks are disappearing in some areas (Maine) and emerging in other areas (Great Lakes). This sea duck shift is creating new opportunities for hunting them while creating confusion and a cause for concern for wildlife managers.
When comparing data from the flyway reports and gathering anecdotal chatter from hunters, there does appear to be a growing interest in sea duck hunting amidst all of the doom and gloom of bird numbers declining. To top it off, trophy hunting for the dapper, wall-worthy drakes or checking species off the the North American Waterfowl Slam list continue to be a top motivation for selectively targeting sea ducks. In some places, trophy hunting may even be putting too much pressure on birds, leading to a complete shutdown of the season. Let’s take a deeper dive around the country to better understand this complex conservation conversation.
Back in the October 2021 Conservation Corner, we took a look at how the East Coast’s common eiders have been significantly affected by climate change. The waters in the Gulf of Maine are increasing in temperature faster than any other place on the planet. This warming is causing a change in the blue mussels, the main food source for eiders, which is leading the birds to move into new areas. In Maine and the Maritimes, there are ongoing studies between state, federal, and international wildlife agencies to better understand all of the factors causing the eider to disappear, but in the meantime, wildlife managers have been tasked with passing on more restrictive regulations to sea duck hunters.
The heyday of sea duck hunting along the Atlantic Seaboard peaked in the 1970s, when a total of 13 states were participating in the special sea duck season (an additional 107 days and a secondary "bonus" 7 bird bag limit of sea ducks in designated zones). Since then, wildlife managers and hunters alike have been witnessing the decline of species like the common eider, black/common, surf, and white-winged scoters, and long-tailed ducks. According to Pat Devers, migratory bird program Atlantic flyway representative with the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), concern for the decline of sea duck species rose up in the late 1980s, with the first phase of hunting restrictions put forth in 1993, when the bag limit on scoters dropped to four birds.
“Our mission has always been to protect the long-term sustainability of these species while providing wildlife recreation for hunters,” Devers stated. “In general, we have less data on sea ducks and less is known about their breeding and life cycles. Our survey efforts are not always as reliable and we’re not banding sea ducks as much as dabbling ducks. They are a longer-lived species with lower breeding success and lower survival rates, making their harvest capacity much less than that of other waterfowl species like puddle ducks and geese.”
Devers went on to mention that across the board, the data suggests that sea ducks along the East Coast have been experiencing long-term declines and in order to protect the longevity of these populations, restrictions on sea duck hunting have been implemented. “The one lever we have most control over is hunting and harvest rates, so we have to adjust the harvest capacity based on what the populations can provide,” Devers added, “And because sea ducks are vastly different than puddle ducks, we have to manage them differently.”
For the Atlantic Flyway, further restrictions to hunting have come in additional phases, with the special sea duck season reduced from 107 days to 60 days and a bag limit drop from 7 to 5 birds (no more than 4 of any one species) in 2016. Devers stated the management goal at that time was to reduce harvest by 25 percent, down to a sustainable level that would not be a detriment to sea duck hunting opportunity. Unfortunately, with long-term trends continuing to show population declines, a major restriction occurred in the 2022/2023 season, with the discontinuation of the longstanding special sea duck season that was first initiated in 1938. Atlantic flyway hunters can now only harvest sea ducks (4 daily limit with no more than 3 of any species and only one hen common eider) during the regular 60-day duck season with these birds counting toward their regular daily bag limit.
Are Trophy Hunters Killing Off Sea Ducks?
Yes, actually. While hardly the single smoking gun to blame, there is at least one place where trophy hunters may have begun to have a negative impact on sea duck populations. Back in June 2022, we reported on our website after the state of Washington closed their season for harlequin ducks.
Since the early 1990s, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has been closely monitoring the declining populations of 11 species of sea ducks, including harlequin. Long-term declines and limited numbers of harlequin ducks have been observed, which ultimately led to more conservative hunting regulations, including the longstanding one-bird-bag-limit that was implemented in 2004. Back in 2011, WDFW drafted a sea duck management plan after a three-year study, and in it, a key regulation was set up to protect the vulnerable harlequin duck from overharvest.
Kyle Spragens, waterfowl section manager for WDFW, mentioned the closure of harlequin hunting was not a snap decision or meant to be a quick fix. “Since the 1990s, the long-term average of wintering harlequin was around 4,500 birds, with an estimated 10 percent being adult birds,” Spragens stated. “In the management plan, we established a moving threshold limit of hunter-harvested birds of five percent of the wintering adult population based on each year’s survey. If harvest numbers exceeded that five percent threshold for three consecutive years, the plan was to close the season on harlequin. Until about 2018, the average number harvested was around 130 birds per year. As the interest in trophy hunting began to rise along with a surge of guiding operations and hunting pressure, we began to see those harvest rates go up, and with numbers exceeding the threshold for the 2019-2021 seasons (209, 230, and 297 birds, respectively, compared to the 189-bird threshold), we followed the guidance and had to close the hunting of harelquin.”
Spragens elaborated on just how vastly different the life cycle is of the harlequin, compared to puddle ducks. “Harlequin are long-lived birds with a delayed reproduction, and most males won’t begin breeding until they’ve reached two to three years of age, and unlike mallards, harlequin don’t always have a successful breeding. The older, more mature males that do breed to sustain the population are now the same trophies that hunters are after, taking out mature adult males is taking out the breeding stock.”
A Rising Tide
With bad news in some places, sea duck hunting popularity is on the rise in many others. Sea ducks live in extreme environments and hunting them subjects hunters to brutal and often punishing conditions. Pushing past the limits and coming out on top is exactly what appeals to many sea duck hunters.
About 15 years ago, after finding himself stuck in the duck doldrums of doing the same thing season after season, Mark Goldsworthy, of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, sat down in his Northwoods cabin with a state atlas and forced himself to face up to a decision try something new. He was part way between the famed Green Bay and the iconic Mississippi River, with a choice to go one way or the other. On a whim, he decided to head east to the big waters of Green Bay to target divers and sea ducks. Although he didn’t yet have all of the proper gear and equipment, he was greeted with a sky full of birds and shot a limit in short order to become instantly enamored with chasing these big water birds.
Fast forward a few years and Goldsworthy’s cabin conundrum would lead him to a life focused on big water bird hunting. He would eventually make his own layout boat and soon began his boat-building businesses, Layout Addictions and Great Lakes Duck Boats, where he welds aluminum layout boats and large, open water duck boats specially designed for sea duck and diver hunters.
When asked what allures him to sea ducks and open water hunting, Goldsworthy replied, “There’s no one out there doing it and the hunting can be awesome with birds flying all day. There are a million things that can go wrong. There’s nothing quite like being out there in the waves and in their environment. You’re on big water, 80 feet deep, it’s cold, and you’ve got to trust your crew and be ready to adapt to handle anything. We’re often a few miles offshore on Lake Michigan hunting long-tailed ducks and it can be gnarly at times. Safety is the biggest thing. I use three different weather apps just to confirm that things are right, and then I double check again once I get to the ramp.”
With opportunities to target sea ducks coast to coast—and several emerging bright points in between—it’s no wonder the interest in sea duck and trophy hunting is on the rise. There’s an unmatched thrill that’s hard to explain, you just have to try it for yourself. Gunning from a layout just inches above the lapping waves, bobbing along the rough seas in a tender, or hugging a seaweed-covered ledge in Maine, a sea duck hunt is unlike anything else you’ve ever done before.
Sea duck hunting and targeting trophy birds are on the radar of many hunters as wildlife managers are now tasked with the difficult duty to both conserve a limited and dwindling resource while providing consumptive recreation for hunters. We can only hope that in time these two objectives can somehow collaborate to meet in the middle for the long-term benefit of the birds and the opportunity for us hunters to pursue them.