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Decline of Northern Eiders a Harbinger for Arctic Wildlife

Common eiders are an important part of life in the North. Inuit in Canada and Greenland harvest the eggs and down and hunt the seabirds for meat. These communities are also watching for disease outbreaks and other concerns in a changing environment.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Female common eider nesting in Bathurst Inlet, Nunavut. Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/Blake Maybank

Twenty years ago, the population of northern common eiders plummeted. In some areas in western Greenland, colonies were reduced from thousands of nests to hundreds.

“For many years, the main conservation issue was hunting,” says Grant Gilchrist, a research scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada, who studies the large sea duck.

The seabirds have long been important to Inuit in both Canada and Greenland; they hunt eiders for meat during the non-breeding season and collect eggs and feather down from breeding colonies. The eiders nest throughout west Greenland and the eastern Canadian Arctic and overwinter along the coasts of eastern Canada and southwestern Greenland.

As new harvesting regulations took effect, the population rebounded in the early 2000s. At one breeding colony in Nunavut, the largest in Arctic Canada, the number of breeding pairs climbed from about 3,000 to 8,000, says Gilchrist.

Then, in 2004, the ducks began dying off in droves. This time the cause was a newly introduced bacterium that causes avian cholera.

Today, the population is recovering, but a number of emerging issues continue to threaten the eider’s survival, including disease, industrial development, climate change and changing predator–prey relationships. “They’re all happening at the same time, and that’s adding to the complexity,” says Gilchrist.

Arctic Deeply recently caught up with Gilchrist to talk about his research, its collaborative aspects and how it influences policy.

Arctic Deeply: What are you seeing now in the eider duck colonies you study in the Arctic?

Grant Gilchrist: There is some good news. The cholera is still present at a low chronic level, but it seems to be abating. That’s expected with disease outbreaks.

When a disease enters a population that’s never experienced it before, many individuals are killed. Some birds may be more resistant than others just based on their genetics, and they survive to breed, so their progeny are more genetically resistant. Immunology can also take effect, so that the bacterium is not as lethal. A wave of mortality is often followed by ripples. It’s like an earthquake. The aftershocks are still there, but they’re not so deadly.

Grant Gilchrist studies Arctic seabird ecology and how the birds are affected by climate change and emerging diseases. (Grant Gilchrist)

Grant Gilchrist studies Arctic seabird ecology and how the birds are affected by climate change and emerging diseases. (Grant Gilchrist)

Arctic Deeply: How do you manage to keep tabs on the colonies?

Gilchrist: The geographic scale is enormous; it’s impossible for my students and I to track this in the landscape. We get a lot of help from the communities. If they see dead birds in their community or when they’re away, when they’re out collecting and hunting, they can notify us. They collect and freeze samples, and then we confirm what’s happened. Also, they report when they see nothing amiss. We map that, too. We go up in person in the winter to have meetings, which is another opportunity for us to have information transfer. We’re also making more and more use of social media. Young people especially are notifying us and communicating with us, not just by phone, but through Facebook.

Arctic Deeply: Are there other ways in which you’re monitoring the colonies?

Gilchrist: We use satellite transmitters to follow the birds to key habitat areas. And in one of our in-depth projects, we have Inuit working with us as field technicians. We also do coastal surveys by boat and freighter canoes, where we camp on the islands and explore the coastline. Most of that crew comes from local communities. We’re moving to a point where we can actually call this “community-based environmental monitoring,” where people are out on the ground counting nests and eggs and relating it to GPS coordinates.

Grant Gilchrist and his team conducted boat-based surveys of polar bears found near eider nests in the Hudson Strait east of Cape Dorset. (Grant Gilchrist)

Grant Gilchrist and his team conducted boat-based surveys of polar bears found near eider nests in the Hudson Strait east of Cape Dorset. (Grant Gilchrist)

Arctic Deeply: Have there been unexpected spinoffs?

Gilchrist: It’s generating a mentorship program. We have unilingual elders who grew up on the land spending time with young men and women. It’s getting young people interested and out to see the coastlines with their elders. They’re showing them, saying, “This is where so-and-so was born” or “We’ve camped at this site for generations and we’re going to camp here again because it’s the perfect harbor.” That’s been rewarding, too.

Arctic Deeply: Eider ducks are migratory species, how has that affected the distribution of the disease?

Gilchrist: Most of the eiders winter in Atlantic Canada, but some of them migrate out of Nunavut and winter in west Greenland. There was the potential that if they were carrying the disease, they could introduce it into the Greenland breeding population. We’re working with the local people in Greenland and with the nature institute there. The disease hasn’t spread yet, but we’re monitoring it.

Sam Iverson, a PhD student of ours, has done a great job mapping when the cholera occurred with the migration patterns of the birds. His work showed that cholera did not occur in the areas where the birds coming from Greenland spent their summer. It did occur among birds that originated in Newfoundland, flew up the Labrador coast and then across the Hudson Strait. The implication is that the cholera was brought by eiders from the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Arctic Deeply: How do environmental conditions impact the severity of the outbreaks?

Gilchrist: Sam Iverson also found that cholera had a bigger impact and persisted longer in colonies that were wet and mossy and warm. Our interpretation of that is that cholera, like other bacteria, survive better in damp, warm places and that they stay very virulent for longer.

Arctic Deeply: Are the changing ice conditions affecting the colonies?

Gilchrist: The lack of spring ice gives the arriving eiders good access to the mussel beds, which they can reach only by diving. It’s a good start to their year. But the polar bears are coming off the ice earlier, too. And they’re eating everything that has just been produced. They’ve having a big impact on egg predation and disturbing nesting females. They just move from one nest to the other. Nothing can stop them, and they just denude the colony of eggs and ducklings, and then they swim to the next island.

Arctic Deeply: What does it mean for the subsistence hunters?

Gilchrist: To start with, the eggs and ducklings that are being eaten by the bears don’t grow up to be adults that could be hunted. The other thing is that the bears are forcing the birds to disperse and nest in suboptimal habitats. They’re in smaller numbers across more islands. It’s much easier to boat to one island with 300 nests than to 10 islands with 30 nests. It’s a lot more effort and fuel, and they’re taking more risks with the bears there. On top of that, once a bear has disrupted an island, all the down gets soiled with rain and dirt and gets blown away.

Eider eggs in a down nest. (Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0/Smudge 9000)

Eider eggs in a down nest. (Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0/Smudge 9000)

Arctic Deeply: How has your research informed policy issues in the Arctic?

Gilchrist: We didn’t stop at just publishing the research. We tried to bring it into the discourse of the Arctic Council, which is well linked to media and politicians. The main policy change we’ve made is actually influencing and changing the harvest regulations, both in Canada and Greenland. Some of the strongest proponents for changes in harvest regulations were Inuit hunters in Greenland because they saw the young guys just hammering the birds and destroying the population, taking too many carelessly. We brought scientific evidence of what we thought was happening. Our stories and our knowledge converged. Then, together, we discussed a solution. The interesting part of the harvest piece is now that the eiders have recovered so well, especially in west Greenland and in Arctic Canada, we’re going to make the harvest slightly more liberal again.

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