Puffins Would Not Exist Without Three Key Threatened Laws

Important environmental safeguards that puffins depend on for survival, food, and their mighty migration are under siege.

This is a transcript of the video.

Perrin Ireland: Who doesn't love an Atlantic puffin? Those soulful eyes, that upright waddle, the shock of orange, all in a package that stands no taller than eight inches.

What isn't immediately apparent about this delightful bird is that it happens to float at the nexus of some big environmental laws. At first glance, they might seem unrelated, but together, they mean life or death for puffins and other migratory seabird species.

Puffins were almost hunted to extinction during the late 19th century. They had disappeared entirely from the coast of Maine by 1885. Then came the first law to the rescue.

Steve Kress, executive director of seabird restoration and vice president of bird conservation, Audubon Society: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 made it illegal to hunt or sell migratory birds and their feathers and eggs. They became protected by it. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act remains the backbone of bird conservation in North America.

Ireland: Flash forward to the 1970s, when Steve Kress, working with the National Audubon Society, successfully reintroduced puffins to Eastern Egg Rock in Maine.

As of summer 2018, there were 178 nesting pairs on the island. Until the Trump administration gutted it, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act also protected birds like puffins from oil spills and other industrial harms.

Protect the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

What that law didn't do, though, is protect the bird's food supply. For that, we owe thanks to another law, one rooted in protecting the seas from overfishing.

When a parent puffin is trying to raise a young chick, it goes fishing every day.

Kress: I think of puffins as a fishing fleet that heads out in the morning. They leave the dock, search the sea as if they were dropping nets, and come home with the catch of the day, literally.

Ireland: Staple fish in a puffin's diet are herring and juvenile haddock. Adult birds need a daily dose of around 40 of these fish, and they feed their chicks several times a day.

Part of why puffins bounced back is because the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Act, implemented in 1976, protects key fish populations from overfishing.

After a successful, well-fed chick fledges at around six weeks old, it goes out to sea and doesn't make landfall again for three or four years. We know very little about what goes on during these years out at sea for these solitary birds, although their migratory range is vast.

Until recently, Steve and his team didn't even know where adult nesting puffins spend the winter. Finally, in 2014, 19 tagged birds came back to Eastern Egg Rock for summer. Their geolocators revealed that they'd traveled north to Canada for a month before veering south to the Northeast Coral Canyons and Seamounts National Monument.

Save Our Marine Monuments

This brings us to the third law that's pivotal for puffins. The first and only marine national monument off the continental United States, about 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, was created in 2016 by President Obama using the Antiquities Act. It turns out the abundant, fish-filled monument is an important winter destination for puffins.

Puffins show us that protecting one species, or one island, or one habitat, wouldn't be enough to support them. They migrate over vast areas of the sea, they depend on fish that don't stay in one place, and they rely on the only national monument in Atlantic waters to sustain them through the cold months.

As the climate changes, puffins that return to one nesting spot year after year need all the support they can get to weather the warming waters. Keeping laws that combine to help our petite, charming little friends thrive is a key way to do this.

It's not just their undeniable charisma, but good environmental laws that compel us to their protection.

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