Puffin Hunting at
© Images by Carsten Egevang, text by Carsten Egevang and Aevar Petersen,
Atlantic icon species
No other bird species signifies the marine environment in the Atlantic as the Puffin Fratercula arctica. The Puffin has long been the most harvested seabird in Iceland and has been caught since the age of the Vikings. Today, the Puffin is often used as a trademark of Iceland and plays a central role in the tourist industry It is pretty clear that the economic value pf Puffins in terms of branding and tourist activities far exceeds that being harvested for the pot. It could even be argued that the Puffin is now the most valuable wild bird in Iceland, exceeding that of Eider down.
At the northernmost point of Iceland, on the island Grimsey, located right on the Arctic Circle, seabird hunting has long been important. The sea around Grimsey is influenced by the cold, Arctic currents stretching down from the North. Grimsey is a little more than 5 kilometre square and reaches 100 meters at its highest peak. The main trade of the approximately 70 inhabitants is fishing for cod as the main species.
A bird-covered island
Grimsey is a true paradise, with seabirds literally seen everywhere on the island. The interior part of the island is inhabited by a large Arctic Tern colony and the noisy birds make their mark on the soundscape throughout the breeding season. Intruders in the colony are attacked from above by the agile terns that rarely miss with their pointy beak. Along the steep cliffs of the island both Common and Brünnich’s Guillemots breed in large numbers together with Black-legged Kittiwakes and Fulmars. Razorbills are found in the lower parts of the bird cliffs. Puffins are mainly located along the western side of the island breeding at the edge of the cliffs and in the grass-covered slopes, where puffin burrows are particularly dense.
Along the steep cliffs of the island both Common and Brünnich’s Guillemot breed in high numbers together with Black-legged Kittiwakes and Fulmars.
Arctic Terns breed at the interior parts of Grimsey and frequently use the small airstrip as a resting place. The agile terns fearlessly attack intruders in the colony.
A rare sight
Puffins with their beak filled with fish used to be a common sight all over Iceland. However, recent declines in the Sandeel stock due to a higher sea surface temperatures have resulted in poor feeding conditions for Puffins in South and West Iceland. In the north of the country Puffin numbers still feature high.
In South Iceland, the Sandeel-based food web in the ocean has collapsed causing low reproduction. The Puffins on Grimsey, however, depend on other food items than Sandeel and the same kind of declines in the population has not been detected here. A monitoring program established at Grimsey in 1981, indicates a major increase in the population. This is different from most other places in the country. Where restrictions on the Puffin hunt has been introduced in the Vestmannaeyjar in South Iceland, the harvest on Grimsey is still at a magnitude as “the old days” or maybe even higher.
The catching of the Puffins is done using a triangle net attached to a 6-meter pole. The hunter selects a suitable spot in the Puffin colony where circling birds will fly close. While waiting for the birds, the hunter rests the net on the ground and tries to make himself as little visible for the passing birds. When a bird is within reach, the hunter raises the net swiftly catching the Puffin from the front. This exercise if performed by trained hunters looks easy and effortless. However, it requires considerable amount of practice to gain the needed skills for catching Puffins. One must master both prediction of the bird´s speed and distance to the bird in relation to reach of the net. If the hunter is alone, he hauls in the net, relieves the entangled bird and wring its neck. Hunters may also work in pairs, where one person assists the catcher in freeing the birds from the net. The latter method works best in colonies with high densities of birds.
A helping hand
Sometimes Puffin hunters work in pairs. One catches the birds with the net – the other releases and kills it. Note how the latter is talking on his mobile phone while freeing the Puffin.
Skinning the birds
The Puffin is reduced to the breast muscles still attached to the breastbone and kept in a freezer for storage. This is done by first breaking off one wing and then pulling out the breast, separating the skin and the internal organs of the bird. The whole procedure only takes 2-3 seconds in the hands of an experienced person. The exact method is different between persons, depending on the traditions handed down from generation to generation.
Family-owned hunting sites!
Grimsey is divided into different harvest sites along the coast of the island depending on individual farms. The bird harvest is decided by the landowner. He can allow bird hunting or ban as he sees fit.
A long journey to harvest puffins
Puffin harvesting is mostly a local activity, where the inhabitants harvest in their local environment. However, family members or friends from elsewhere traditionally come and taken part in the harvest at the auspices of the landowners. During recent years, the large decline in the Puffin population in South and West Iceland, due to food shortage, have resulted in lack of birds for the pot. At Vestmannaeyjar, where traditionally the largest numbers of Puffins were taken not enough Puffins have been available, for the local households as well as two annual festivals. Nowadays, is not possible to harvest enough birds locally so hunters have to look elsewhere in Iceland. Puffins have greatly declined so that the local government has reduced hunting to a few days. For the past couple of years Puffin hunters from Vestmannaeyjar have visited Grimsey in July to harvest Puffins. This is only possible with the permission of local landowners and an agreement is reached on a fixed number of birds that can be harvested.
Men of the South
A group of eight men from Vestmannaeyjar in South Iceland has made the long journey to Grimsey to catch Puffins. This is a strong indication of how important Puffins still are in Iceland nowadays for some people.
The use of decoys
To lure the Puffins by indicating no danger, some of the first caught birds are placed in an up-right position to imitate birds loafing in the colony.
The very first bird caught always set free!
It is a custom that the first caught Puffin of the season is released. This is believed to bring good luck.
The photo reportage “Puffin hunting at Grimsey” is part of the project Seabird Harvest in the North Atlantic. Images included in the reportage are the result of a one-week visit by Carsten Egevang and Aevar Petersen to Grimsey in July 2016. A warm “takk!” goes to the hospitable people of Grimsey.