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Monitoring the recovery of seabirds and forage fish following a major ecosystem disruption in Lower Cook Inlet

May 1, 2021

Following the North Pacific marine heatwave of 2014-2016 and associated extreme die-off of seabirds in the winter of 2015-2016, we repeated historical marine bird and forage fish surveys around two seabird colonies (Gull Island, Chisik Island) in lower Cook Inlet during 2016-2019 in order to document immediate and lingering impacts of the heatwave on resident fish and seabird populations. At sea, we conducted acoustic/trawl surveys for fish in near-colony areas, while simultaneously counting seabirds on survey transects. At colonies, we monitored bird numbers on whole colony censuses and population plot counts and assessed annual reproductive success of Black-legged Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) and Common Murres (Uria aalge). Our studies suggest that impacts of the heatwave on seabirds and their forage base were severe and extended for several years beyond the heatwave itself. Although fish biomass indices were greatest in 2016-2017, the forage community was largely dominated by juvenile fish with low nutritional value following a collapse of key species of forage fish during the marine heatwave. Lowest fish biomass was observed in 2018, coincident with a marked decline in the at-sea abundance of many seabirds around colonies. By 2019 there were signs of improvement in prey abundance and quality, and significant aggregations of pre-spawning capelin and large sand lance were observed in and around Kachemak Bay. In comparison with historical (1996-1999) bird colony surveys, kittiwake population counts decreased by more than 70% at Chisik Island, and by 8-29% at Gull Island. Similarly, murre counts decreased at Chisik Island by 72% and by more than 20% at Gull Island. Kittiwakes had complete reproductive failure at Chisik Island from 2016-2018, with minimal success in 2019. At Gull Island, kittiwakes also failed in 2016 and 2018 but had unusually high productivity in 2017 and 2019. Murres also had complete reproductive failures at Chisik Island in all four years and at Gull Island during 2016, 2017 and 2018. Murres finally fledged chicks in 2019, albeit at about half the normal rate. Finally, we also observed unusually high levels of predator disturbance (egg predation, flushing adults from plots) and unprecedented numbers of adult birds in poor body condition (“skinny murres”), particularly in 2018. Together, these results indicate that an extreme disruption of marine food webs occurred during and after the heatwave. Given the prolonged reproductive failures, continued monitoring is required to assess continuing impacts and recovery from the 2014-2016 heatwave. For example, murre chicks that would have been produced in 2016 should, after 4-5 years away, start recruiting to the colony in 2021, and thereby replace aged adults that would have died naturally in the past year(s). Without such natal recruitment for at least the next 3-4 years, we should document a continuing decline in bird numbers at the colonies.

Publication Year 2021
Title Monitoring the recovery of seabirds and forage fish following a major ecosystem disruption in Lower Cook Inlet
Authors Mayumi L. Arimitsu, Sarah K. Schoen, John F. Piatt, Caitlin Elizabeth Marsteller, Gary S. Drew
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Series Title OCS Study
Series Number 2021-031
Index ID 70221346
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB