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Status review of the Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) in Alaska and British Columbia

February 4, 2007

The Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) is a small, diving seabird inhabiting inshore waters of the Northeastern Pacific Ocean. This species feeds on small, schooling fishes and zooplankton, and nests primarily on the moss-covered branches of large, old-growth conifers, and also, in some parts of its range, on the ground. We reviewed existing information on this species to evaluate its current status in the northern part of its range—Alaska (U.S.) and British Columbia (Canada). Within the southern part of its range (Washington, Oregon, and California, U.S.), the Marbled Murrelet was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1993, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) needed information on the species throughout its range for ESA deliberations. We compiled published information on the conservation status, population biology, foraging ecology, population genetics, population status and trends, demography, marine and nesting habitat characteristics, threats, and ongoing conservation efforts for Marbled Murrelets in Alaska and British Columbia. We conducted a new genetic study using samples from a segment of the range that had not been included in previous studies (Washington, Oregon) and additional nuclear intron and microsatellite markers. We also analyzed available at-sea survey data from several locations for trend. To understand the reasonableness of the empirical trend data, we developed demographic models incorporating stochasticity to discern what population trends were possible by chance. The genetic studies substantially confirmed previous findings on population structure in the Marbled Murrelet. Our present work finds three populations: (1) one comprising birds in the central and western Aleutian Islands; (2) one comprising birds in central California; and (3) one comprising birds within the center of the range from the eastern Aleutians to northern California. Our knowledge of genetic structure within this central population is limited and it requires additional study. Compiling available abundance information, we estimated that in the recent past, Marbled Murrelets in Alaska numbered on the order of 1 million birds. We were unable to generate a similar estimate for historical population size in British Columbia. Using trend information from at-sea surveys spanning a wide geographic range in Alaska, murrelet numbers declined significantly at five of eight trend sites at annual rates of -5.4 to -12.7 percent since the early 1990s. Applying these rates of decline to the historical population estimate, the current murrelet population in Alaska is projected to be on the order of 270,000 birds. This represents an overall population decline of about 70 percent during the past 25 years. In British Columbia, available trend data indicate that murrelet populations there have experienced similar declines. We updated a recent (2002) population estimate for British Columbia, concluding that there are now between 54,000 and 92,000 murrelets in British Columbia. The rates of decline we observed are within, but at the high end of, a range of rates expected by chance. Given that declines were estimated for sites over essentially the entire northern range of the species, there is cause for concern about the species’ status. In their marine habitats, Marbled Murrelets overlap with salmon (Oncorhynchus sp.) gillnetting operations in British Columbia and in Alaska (especially in Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska), and annual bycatch mortality is likely in the low thousands per year, although bycatch rates are difficult to measure. The species’ inshore distribution coincides with high levels of vessel traffic and makes them especially vulnerable to both chronic oil pollution and to catastrophic spills (e.g., the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill [EVOS] in south-central Alaska, which is estimated to have killed 12,000 to 15,000 murrelets). In their forested nesting habitats, Marbled Murrelets have lost about 15 percent of their suitable nesting habitat in Southeast Alaska, and 33 to 49 percent in British Columbia, from industrial-scale logging within the past half century. Increased predation also may be a threat to murrelet populations, related to fragmentation and edge effects from logging and development, and recent population increases observed for some important murrelet predators, including Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), Common Ravens (Corvus corax), and Steller’s Jays (Cyanocitta stelleri). Nesting habitat losses cannot explain the declines observed in areas where industrial logging has not occurred on a large scale (e.g., Prince William Sound) or at all (Glacier Bay). The apparent change in population size and rates of decline reported for the Marbled Murrelet are large, and we therefore considered alternative explanations and precedents for changes of similar magnitude in other marine wildlife populations in the Northeastern Pacific Ocean. The declines are likely real, and related to combined and cumulative effects from climate-related changes in the marine ecosystem (most likely the 1977 regime shift) and human activities (logging, gillnet bycatch, oil pollution). Much uncertainty about the decline could be alleviated by continuing to repeat boat surveys in Prince William Sound and lower Cook Inlet, and by repeating the boat survey of Southeast Alaska that was conducted in 1994. This survey used a statistically sound design and covered the region that has been and likely remains the center of the species’ abundance. Important questions remain to be addressed about methods for measuring population status and change, adult mortality (major sources, density dependence, seasonal concordance), and the movements of wintering populations.

Publication Year 2007
Title Status review of the Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) in Alaska and British Columbia
DOI 10.3133/ofr20061387
Authors John F. Piatt, K.J. Kuletz, A.E. Burger, Scott A. Hatch, Vicki L. Friesen, T.P. Birt, Mayumi L. Arimitsu, G.S. Drew, A.M.A. Harding, K.S. Bixler
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2006-1387
Index ID ofr20061387
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB