Pufflings could be the poster children for continued fisheries management practices in the United States. After all, who doesn’t love puffins? The Rudaleviges certainly do. We’ve got a mantlepiece shrine comprising statues and photos of the “clowns of the sea” (dubbed so because of their bright orange beaks in summer and year-round playful demeanor) that we’ve seen in captivity at the Boston Aquarium and in the wild, courtesy of a Hardy Boat Puffin Watch cruise out of New Harbor.

The puffin collection at Christine Burn Rudalevige’s home. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Atlantic puffin is a small, pigeon-sized seabird that lives on the open ocean through most of the year. It breeds in colonies on rocky islands in northern climates between April and August. The females lay one egg that is then incubated by both adults in turn. (Because puffins have a low reproductive rate, the population is at increased risk.) When the puffling hatches, the adults feed it small fish five or six times a day until it is large enough to leave the nest, typically in mid-to-late August.

The status of puffin populations around the world varies. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists them as endangered in Europe, but only as vulnerable worldwide. In Maine, they are rare and listed by the state as a threatened species. According to data collected by The National Audubon Society Project Puffin, an effort started in 1973 to restore puffins to two historic nesting islands in the Gulf of Maine, the number of breeding pairs returning to Maine is up. The colonies on these islands were decimated in the late 19th century when the birds were hunted, principally for their feathers. In 1992, Eastern Egg Rock in Muscungus Bay had only 16 returning pairs. Last year, Project Puffin scientists, who live on the island (in huts) for the summer, documented 178 nesting couples. Farther east on Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, the number of breeding pairs has increased from 7 to 565 in that same period.

The growing number of breeding puffin pairs returning to Gulf of Maine islands, to lay their eggs and feed their adorable fluffy fledglings, signals there just may be enough fish in the sea in those locations to support them. That is, if the teeth of the 43-year-old Magnuson-Stevens Act, the federal law governing how many fish U.S. fishermen can catch within 200 nautical miles of American shores, stay intact as Congress does not alter  its parameters, as it is considering.

The numbers of puffin pairs are up because they have moved on from their preferred summertime seafood source – juvenile herring. Fishing pressures have depleted the herring stock significantly and warming waters have pushed the remaining herring to deeper, cooler levels in the water column where adult puffins are unable to dive with any regularity.

“Fortunately, we are pleased that the puffins have adapted to catch the fish that are now available to them,” said Cornell University ornithologist Dr. Stephen W. Kress, who also serves as Project Puffin’s executive director. If humans followed the puffins’ lead in eating the species of fish the ocean can afford to give rather than just what we are accustomed to consuming, other depleted fish stocks could have the chance to rebound.

Susie Meadows, an educator at the Project Puffin Visitor Center in Rockland, explains that the birds’ dietary adjustment was not without its hiccups. “Pufflings have to be able to swallow the fish their parents bring them whole,” Meadows said, as adult puffins do not regurgitate partly digested food they have consumed in order to feed their young, as many other bird species do. As Gulf of Maine waters warmed and more sunfish made their way north, the puffins tried to feed those to their young. But their bodies were too round to be swallowed whole. So the puffins moved on to fishing for juvenile hake, haddock and Acadian redfish.

Research shows that changes in the Gulf Stream have brought more silver hake to Maine recently, therefore increasing availability to all eaters. Both haddock and Acadian redfish had once been considered overfished, but under management measures enabled by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, stocks for both have rebounded to sustainable levels.

“Both puffins and people can influence conservation with their food choices,” Kress said. If you buy sustainably harvested Gulf of Maine hake, haddock and Acadian redfish, fishermen will continue to bring them to market to meet the demand for them.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]

 

The haddock gets a chopped parsley garnish. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Baked Haddock with Sicilian Caponata

This room-temperature, sweet and sour sauce made from the bounty of summertime vegetables livens up everything from scrambled eggs or a cheese sandwich to a bowl of pasta or a few plain old crackers. Here it gets paired with sustainably harvested and simply baked haddock, hake or Acadian redfish, all of which are available in Hannaford’s fish case. The recipe makes twice as much sauce as you’ll need to top the fish, but it will store in the refrigerator for about a week so you can try it in any of the ways I suggest.

Serves 4 (plus extra sauce)

1 large eggplant (about 1½ pounds)

Olive oil

Kosher salt

1 medium onion, chopped

2 stalks celery, thinly sliced

3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

2 cups peeled, chopped plum tomatoes

3 tablespoons capers, drained

1/2 cup chopped roasted bell peppers

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped pitted olives

2 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar

4 (five-ounce) servings haddock fillets

Crushed black pepper

Chopped parsley

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Trim and compost the ends of the eggplant. Cut remaining eggplant into 1-inch cubes. Toss cubes with 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt and spread them evenly on a large baking pan. Roast eggplant for 12 minutes, until 1 side of the cubes are browned. Remove from the oven and let eggplant sit to soften.

Warm 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, celery and garlic. Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon salt over vegetables, stir to coat them in oil and cook them slowly until they are soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes. Add the reserved eggplant, the capers, roasted peppers and olives. Bring to a simmer and stir in the sugar and vinegar. Simmer over low heat until the mixture is quite thick, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Arrange the fish in a baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Slide the dish into the hot oven and bake until the fish is cooked through, about 7 minutes for each ½-inch of thickness. Remove the fish from the oven, top each piece with 1/4 cup of caponata. Garnish with parsley and serve warm.


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