Project Puffin at 50: A Success Story, But Still Fragile

The anniversary of the renowned conservation effort finds Maine’s reestablished puffin colonies at a turning point.

Atlantic puffins
Photo by Nick Leadley
By Derrick Z. Jackson
From our April 2023 Animals issue

Atlantic puffins in Maine represent a globally recognized victory in wildlife conservation — and they offer a poignant warning about climate change in New England. Indisputably one of the cutest birds on Earth, they were nearly lost to 19th-century hunters after their meat and eggs. By 1902, Maine’s last pair clung to existence on Matinicus Rock, 18 miles off the midcoast.

In 1973, biologist Steve Kress and the National Audubon Society launched Project Puffin, an effort to reestablish the bird. It was the world’s first restoration of a seabird to an island where humans had killed it off. Over a decade and a half, Kress and his team brought from Newfoundland nearly 2,000 puffin chicks and reared them on two islands where the bird was gone: Eastern Egg Rock, in outer Muscongus Bay, and Seal Island, 21 miles off Rockland.

In 1981, the first of Kress’s chicks began breeding. By 2019, the combined number of breeding puffins on the two islands had grown to more than 750 pairs. Thanks to the combined efforts of the project and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, more than 1,300 pairs of puffins now nest across Eastern Egg Rock, Sea Island, Matinicus Rock, and Petit Manan Island.

annual counts of puffin breeding pairs illustrated in a chart
2020 and 2021 census data are incomplete for Eastern Egg Rock, due to COVID. 2019 is the last year of available data from Seal Island.

The 50th anniversary of Project Puffin finds the Gulf of Maine one of the planet’s fastest-warming ocean bodies, causing disruptions to food webs that put even highly adaptable puffins at risk. In the summer of 2021, extreme rain and heat events brought massive breeding failure to Maine’s colonies. Last summer, calmer conditions led to a rebound in puffin chicks and new tern population records. That rebound “symbolizes that we are not yet at the point of no return,” Petit Manan supervisor Hallie Daly told me last year. And we can yet avoid it if we listen to Keara Nelson, last year’s Eastern Egg Rock supervisor. “This isn’t like a zoo,” she told me. “The animals are not separated from whatever we do at home.” Stabilizing ocean temperatures to help puffins, in other words, requires the same climate action needed to protect ourselves from extreme weather events, rising seas, and more — a recognition that we’re all in the same “zoo.”