Bird in the hand: How the murre has helped sustain outport fishermen for centuries
Whether they're called murres or turrs, hunting them is still a tradition in some parts of Newfoundland
Murres have been hunted by outport Newfoundlanders since the island's settlement by Europeans.
In early days, it was really a subsistence hunt, as the birds — mostly referred to locally as "turrs" — were a very important source of food for many people.
But the birds were also often sold to augment a fisherman's sparse income.
Two species of these birds frequent our bays during the winter: the thick-billed murres, which breed primarily in the Arctic, and the common murres, which breed primarily in Newfoundland and Labrador. Both are referred to as "turrs," but discriminating hunters will call common murres simply "murres."
Before Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, turrs could be shot on the island at any time of the year, but afterward, the bird was automatically covered under the Migratory Bird Convention Act, an international agreement involving Canada, the United States and several other countries, including all birds that migrate to and from and around these countries.
From 1949 until the 1960s, turrs were allowed to be hunted only by outport Newfoundlanders, and then only if those doing the hunting needed the birds for food. Even up to the 1980s Newfoundland and Labrador residents were permitted to shoot as many murres as they wanted each year, between Sept. 1 and March 31, without a licence. There was no kill limit, but according to the regulations at the time, they were still only permitted to be killed by residents of the province "for his or her own use but were not to be sold."
For decades turr hunting was pursued using the old reliable slow-moving wooden dory with the "make and break" engine, and mostly with single-shot shotguns. That changed in the 1970s and 1980s, with the growing popularity of pump-action and semi-automatic shotguns and the introduction of more mobile and much faster fibreglass ice-proof boats.
At the time, the hunting of the delicious birds was still unregulated. It became a very popular sport, with an estimated 625,000 to 1.2 million turrs killed a year. And, for some hunters, it was very much a commercial enterprise, with an estimated 30 per cent of the birds harvested being sold.
According to Bruce Turner, a retired manager of the Canadian Wildlife Service in Newfoundland and Labrador, important regulation changes were made in the early 1990s, setting bag limits and shortening turr hunting season.
"The present March 10 closing date of the hunting season reduced the kill numbers significantly, especially in the Cape Freels to Southern Shore area of the province," he told me a few years ago.
Turner said turr harvest numbers declined sharply in the 1990s, averaging about 200,000 birds per year. In recent years the bird surveys concluded that the number of turrs killed has declined even more, from 118,000 in 2008 to 72,000 in 2018, the last yearly data available.
And while Turner said he believes the actual harvest is higher than the survey estimates, the Canadian Wildlife Service feels harvest levels in recent years are well within sustainable limits.
Leslie M. Tuck (1911-1979) was a Dominion Wildlife officer at the time of Confederation. He was subsequently appointed as the first Canadian Wildlife Service biologist and over the years became internationally acclaimed as an authority on murres.
Bill Montevecchi, a university research professor who himself has studied the murres and other seabirds of our coasts, described Les Tuck as "the pioneering catalyst who grounded marine ornithology" in Newfoundland.
"He was a champion for many things, including establishing our seabird ecological reserves," he said.
Throughout the 1950s, Tuck devoted part of his summers to studying the reproductive biology of murres and he visited every known colony on the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts. He also spent a lot of time in the Canadian Arctic furthering murre research, but his prime study area was the remote Funk Island, 60 kilometres northeast of Cape Freels off Newfoundland's northeast coast, where he made 10 research visits from 1951 to 1972.
His research culminated in the 1961 publication of The Murres: Their Distribution, Population and Biology, which met with immediate acclaim and was named the outstanding publication of the year in ecology and wildlife management by the Wildlife Society. Tuck's book is still a go-to reference today for CWS research biologists.
Sabina Wilhelm, a wildlife biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service in St. John's, told me that systematic, comprehensive monitoring of seabird colonies in Newfoundland and Labrador did not begin until the 1970s.
"Les Tuck's detailed accounts of his early discoveries and observations of some of the largest seabird colonies in the northwest Atlantic provides important baseline information on the status and health of these colonies prior to that time," she said via email.
According to Tuck's book, when he first visited Funk Island, in 1951, he estimated the common murre population there to be 40,000 pairs, increasing to 150,000 pairs in 1956 and reaching a peak on July 14, 1959, of 500,000 pairs.
Wilhelm, colonial seabird biologist for CWS's Atlantic region, said the common murre populations have also increased since the 1990s because of several contributing factors "but perhaps mostly influenced by the reduction of gillnets being placed in inshore waters close to seabird colonies which had resulted in significant seabird bycatch."
The latest estimate is that 790,000 breeding pairs of common murres now nest around Newfoundland and Labrador. Wilhelm says the largest site is Funk Island with 470,000 pairs followed by the Witless Bay area with 258,000 pairs. There are also an estimated 1.5 million breeding pairs of thick-billed murres in the Canadian Arctic, many of which find their way down to our waters during the winter.
All indications are that the murre population is quite healthy; our common murre numbers have been increasing in recent years and the Canadian Arctic thick-billed murre populations have been holding their own since the 1970s.
Today's total estimated population of common murres and thick-billed murres (including breeders and non-breeders) in Newfoundland and Labrador as well as the Canadian Arctic, is close to nine million birds. While several million of these birds winter in our waters, only a small percentage of them actually come close to our shores and into our bays.
Coastal Newfoundland and Labrador is divided into four murre/turr hunting zones, each with different opening and closing dates. The 2020-21 hunting season closed March 10.
Gerard Bartlett, a veteran hunter who lives in Griquet on the tip of the Northern Peninsula, has been taking part in the turr hunt for more than 40 years.
"Years ago you only had to go outside the harbour to get your birds, but now you have to steam 14, 15 miles out to find them," he told me a few weeks ago. "When there's no ice around we don't see many birds. Looking out my window now, there's not a pan to be seen."
On the last day of the season in his zone — Jan. 20 — with the weather "perfect for hunting" he only managed to shoot six turrs.
Henry Allen has been turr hunting out of Grand Bank on the Burin Peninsula for nearly 60 years. Earlier this year, Allen was pessimistic about this year's hunting prospects.
"This year's turr season has been the worst I've ever seen, with very few birds in the bay," he said.
However, during the last two weeks of the season turrs were more plentiful and when weather permitted, many hunters around Fortune Bay, including Allen, were shooting their limit of 20 birds a day (with a total possession limit of 40 birds).
The pattern of turr migration has changed over the years, Allen said.
"Years ago large flocks of turrs would be in Fortune Bay in November, but now they're much later arriving in this area."
Once April comes, it's not unusual to see "big companies numbering in the hundreds," he said.
Bruce Pollard of the Canadian Wildlife Service says there are two peaks in the number of birds harvested during the hunting season. The first and more substantial peak occurs in Zone 2, largely along the northeast coast. This harvest happens earlier in the season, from late October to mid-November. A second peak happens later in the year, in February, after Zone 2 closes, around the Avalon Peninsula and on the south coast.
The Twillingate-Fogo area is in Zone 2, having an open season from Oct. 6 to Jan. 20. One veteran turr hunter from Twillingate told me, "This year was the most birds I have seen for many years. The wind was on land a lot and conditions were good for hunting."
He explained that they get the older murres early in the season while the younger turrs arrive in November.
"The first two weeks of November is the prime time for hunting in this area — around Bonfire Night is the best," he said.
Another Twillingate hunter told me that they get big companies — mostly murres — and most of them are shot "on the wing."
Glen Meadus of Conception Bay South has been turr hunting for 30-plus years, usually in St. Mary's Bay, which is where — along with the Twillingate-Fogo area — the most consistently good turr hunting can be found on the island. Both areas are close to the major breeding areas for common murres: Funk Island and Witless Bay/Cape St. Mary's.
"There is really no difference in the number of turrs we see in this area now than what we saw and killed years ago. We could always go out and get our quota and we still can," said Meadus.