I had planned to start sea duck hunting earlier this season but a few things interfered.

One was deer season, but a more significant factor was a delay in the season opener from the traditional Oct. 1 until Nov. 11. Then, when I finally got out, it was a very short hunt.

But after high winds brought a premature end to our hunt, I had a chance to sit down and chat with Brad Allen, bird group leader at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife about the change in the sea duck season, running through Jan. 19.

He summed it up by noting that “it’s taken us a while to get the seasons in line with the biology of the species.” Unlike puddle ducks, sea ducks are what biologists sometimes refer to as “K-select” species. They have a late age of first breeding, small clutch sizes and low productivity rates. Thus it may take them several years, or their lifetime, to replace themselves in the population.

For a time that wasn’t much of a problem. “The general framework for sea duck seasons was established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decades ago when species like eiders were abundant and underutilized,” said Allen. But popularity in sea duck hunting has grown significantly since those frameworks were established in the 1940s.

Despite declines, the USFWS did nothing about season restrictions or bag limits until this year. “Previously, each of the eider states made our own changes within the federal frameworks, generally by reducing the daily bag limit,” Allen said.

Maine was among the first to take steps, reducing the daily bag from seven to five eiders in 1999, then four in 2009. It was not until this year that USFWS changed the hunting season from 107 days to 60 and reduced the aggregate daily bag limit from seven sea ducks to five. While all the coastal state biologists supported it, some – including Allen – wonder if it’s enough.

In addition to harvest rates they must also consider production, which has been on a long-term decline. “I fear duckling survival has been reduced to perhaps as low as 5 percent on many coastal nesting islands,” Allen said. “That’s not enough to sustain a 10 percent annual adult mortality rate.”

Fault falls with the usual suspects: foxes, raccoons, mink, otters and even eagles. The worst predators, however, are great black-backed gulls, which may be removing as much as 90 percent of the eggs/young each year. Adding to their troubles is a significant decline in the eider’s primary food source, mussels, which have all but disappeared from much of the coastline.

But Allen is cautiously optimistic. “I’m hoping there are significant colonies where duckling survival is greater, say about 10 percent. My colleagues and I agree. Several years of terrible survival are common, but hopefully there’s a good year (or pulse) of ducklings often enough to avert disaster.”

He noted that big declines in eider numbers resulted in a decline in sea duck guides and sea duck hunters in general, “so they’re killing fewer birds,” he said.

Allen also has noticed a change in hunters’ attitudes. “People no longer feel like they need to limit out.”

They’re now targeting only drakes, which has less of an impact on productivity, and an adult male eider has become more of a trophy, a one-and-done, bucket-list bird.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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