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Spatial and temporal variation in marine birds in the north Gulf of Alaska: The value of marine bird monitoring within Gulf Watch Alaska

January 1, 2015

Birds offer useful insights into marine ecosystems. Marine birds are responsive to spatial and temporal variation in the environment, that often originates with fluctuations in oceanographic and climatic drivers and permeates up through food webs to conspicuous top predators such as seabirds (Coyle and Pinchuk 2005, Speckman et al. 2005, Gonzales-Solis et al. 2009, Cushing et al., this report). In that way, marine birds are excellent assimilators, samplers, and indicators of the status of marine environments (Montevecchi 1993, Piatt et al. 2007b, Zador et al. 2013). Marine bird responses to dynamic marine ecosystems can be detected in a variety of metrics, including abundance, distribution, and productivity. For example, in the northern Gulf of Alaska (GOA), decadal-scale variation in oceanographic conditions has been associated with dramatic shifts in prey composition and abundance (Anderson and Piatt 1999). In turn, these shifts were more closely correlated with changes in abundance of fish-eating birds of Prince William Sound (PWS), such as pigeon guillemots (Golet et al. 2002) and marbled and Kittlitz’s murrelets (Kuletz et al. 2011a, 2011b), than in the abundance of species that primarily consume plankton or benthic prey (Agler et al. 1999, Cushing et al., this report). Birds also are responsive to anthropogenic influences in marine environments, including commercial fishing, contamination, introduction of non-native species, coastal development, offshore resource extraction, and vessel traffic. A major anthropogenic perturbation in the northern GOA was the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, in which marine birds suffered high immediate mortality (Piatt and Ford 1996). Additionally, several species showed long-term evidence of declines in the oiled areas of PWS (Lance et al. 2001), as well as impacts to reproductive success years later (Golet et al. 2002). However, the degree of direct impact and vulnerability to chronic injury, which was related to exposure to lingering oil, varied widely among species (see Esler et al., this report). Research and monitoring directed at documenting the timelines and mechanisms of wildlife recovery following the Exxon Valdez oil spill led to an unprecedented understanding of oil spill effects on marine birds, as well as previously unknown information about marine bird ecology in the northern GOA. Quantifying effects of anthropogenic influences requires an understanding of variation in marine bird abundance, distribution, and productivity, in relation to naturally occurring dynamics in marine environments continued marine bird work as part of Gulf Watch Alaska will facilitate this. In addition to their value as indicators of marine conditions and anthropogenic influences, marine birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Marine birds have high societal value from a wide variety of interests (e.g., tourism, bird watching, hunting, mythology), and are an important source of subsistence foods in Alaska (Naves and Braem 2014). Because of the conservation interest in marine birds, as well as their value for indicating the status of marine ecosystems, monitoring of marine birds is an important component of many ocean monitoring programs, including Gulf Watch Alaska.

Publication Year 2015
Title Spatial and temporal variation in marine birds in the north Gulf of Alaska: The value of marine bird monitoring within Gulf Watch Alaska
Authors Kathy J. Kuletz, Daniel Esler
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Report
Index ID 70193467
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB