Spending a summer on Eastern Egg Rock is like working inside a living tornado. Thousands of seabirds representing seven species return to the island each spring to lay eggs and raise chicks. These birds have rusty social skills, little time to waste, and little patience for the human scientists there to help them. The terns are all wings and beaks as they protect their nests by dive-bombing, pecking, screeching and dropping guano on the intruders.

We’re happy to take the abuse. Management from biologists and volunteers is what keeps Maine’s seabird islands viable for rare species like Atlantic puffins, Leach’s storm-petrel, and razorbills, as well as the endangered roseate tern. Roseates are a graceful and elegant species, porcelain-white with a black bill, long, flowing tail feathers, and a namesake flush of pink on the breast.

A convergence of factors, including the lasting effects of overhunting in the 19th century, habitat loss, predation, changing food supply and other impacts of climate change, resulted in the roseate tern’s “endangered” listing under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1987. The National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin helped bring the Atlantic puffin back to Maine and assisted federal and state biologists in their recovery of the roseate tern and other seabirds.

It’s hard work, but the results have been remarkable. From a low of 85 pairs of roseate terns nesting in Maine in 1972, we are now up over 250 pairs. The state has more than 1,100 nesting pairs of Atlantic puffin, up from close to zero in 1900.

But protecting the islands protects more than just the federally listed species. Maine now hosts more than 450 pairs of razorbills, a close relative of the puffin, up from near zero in the 1960s. Other species benefit from the protections we provide, including black guillemot, common murre, common tern, Arctic tern and others whose stability depends on predator-free islands.

In turn, these seabirds are connected to other species off the island. They require reliable sources of food – sand lance, herring, hake, and other fish – close enough to nesting islands to ferry food to growing chicks. In turn, those baitfish rely on tiny krill and other crustaceans for their own survival. The conservation of Atlantic puffins is inextricably linked to the conservation of other species.

In short, we must protect biodiversity.

Species depend on each other in uncountable and unknowable ways, as parts of chains and webs and other relationship structures beyond our understanding. Ecosystems in Maine had millions of years to harmonize before humans came along and began upsetting things, and it’s only been the past few decades that we’ve made strides towards understanding our impacts and attempting to reverse them.

But modern conservation is fragmented, often too-focused on a single species or stymied by administrative boundaries or competing jurisdictions. Ecosystems and the species within do not respect boundaries, and the future of conservation must be similarly flexible.

One idea currently gaining traction in Congress is for a National Biodiversity Strategy, an overarching directive that will guide the work of federal and, hopefully, state and local conservation toward protecting biodiversity by working together to maximize the utility of existing laws. Uniting the different federal agencies tasked with conservation behind a single purpose – protecting biodiversity – would improve efficiency and clarity of mission, and protect more species. Maine Sens. Collins and King would do well to support a National Biodiversity Strategy in the Senate, and help ensure many more years of squawking seabirds, and the many species they are connected to, on Maine’s offshore islands.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.