Seabirds: a Window into California’s Marine Protected Areas
By Claire Peaslee | April 9, 2016
Adapting to change is something wildlife populations have always done. But now they face exceptionally rapid rates of change—on land and in the ocean. They need conservation measures that provide more time, and room, for adapting.
Climate-smart conservation is one such approach. It mixes mitigation and adaptation strategies to increase the resiliency and persistence of ecosystems in the face of climate change. On land, climate-smart habitat restoration is one effective way to revive and support ecosystems. In marine systems, one successful strategy for helping wildlife populations adapt to rapid change is to designate safe havens, free from pressures of fishing and other human impacts.
California’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) aim to do just this—to give fishes, whales, seabirds and the whole marine food web protected places for feeding and breeding.
“The MPAs off California’s coast are a valuable tool in our conservation toolbox,” says Dan Robinette, a lead marine scientist with Point Blue Conservation Science. “They can buy some time for seabird populations to adapt to an ocean environment that’s changing dramatically. And seabirds, like other marine life forms, will adapt if given enough time and space.”
Dan leads a short tour of MPAs off the Central California coast that you can view at this link!
And it’s important to learn how well this pioneering program is working.
For the past nine years, Dan has co-led the scientific effort to begin evaluating the effectiveness of California MPAs, using seabird monitoring as the key method to set a baseline. This effort is nearly complete, and reports can be found at www.OceanSpaces.org.
“Establishing the first baseline of information, from border to border, is a major landmark,” says Robinette. “Stakeholders in the MPA process—people including fishers, conservationists, recreationists, and others—need to find out whether the program is paying dividends, such as the growth of depleted fish populations. But perhaps more important, the baseline program helps both the public and MPA managers set realistic expectations.”
This is where seabird research is particularly important. It is showing California coastal managers how stretches of the coast can differ in their responses to marine life protections.
Seabirds harvest juvenile fish of species such as rockfish and sanddabs to feed their chicks. The abundance of juvenile fish determines the growth and sustainability of the overall adult fish population. This makes seabirds, and particularly their foraging rates and locations, great indicators of ocean health and guides for ocean management. We have learned, for example, that habitats in the lee of coastal promontories can retain juvenile fish at higher abundances than windward habitats. Since these juvenile fish will eventually bolster adult populations, they are one of the key drivers determining how quickly change will occur inside MPAs.
Scientist and Citizens Work Together
Methods for understanding these seabird-fish connections derive from the work that Dan Robinette leads at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in Central California. From vantage points on coastal bluffs, scientists observe teeming colonies of cormorants, guillemots, gulls, and other seabirds. They record the birds returning to their nest sites carrying small fishes pulled from nearby ocean waters, and they document how many chicks fledge.
Now, local communities up and down California will be the key to documenting the effectiveness of MPAs into the future. Point Blue is working with agency partners to make sure that data collection on seabird colonies can be meaningful and achievable.
“It’s a huge challenge to maintain and pay for ongoing monitoring studies,” says Robinette. “Part of this effort involves building and training a new work force of citizen scientists, public volunteers who have a vested interest in seeing marine populations thrive.”
This spring, biologists in Point Blue’s Coastal Marine Program and citizen scientists from volunteer programs in Central California will set up tripods as seabirds like cormorants make another attempt to thrive by adding more young to their populations. How well they do will tell biologists how well the fishes they eat are succeeding at reproduction. The abundance of young fishes, which varies with ocean conditions, represents a measure of the entire marine ecosystem’s vitality—from krill and other small prey to consumers such as salmon, marine mammals, and humans.
The fate of our ocean wildlife populations depends on us—on successful management based on science and on public support and participation. Are Marine Protected Areas working? Scientists at Point Blue think so, and are working with citizens and other partners to find out.
Learn More about Seabird Protection
The dynamic marine ecosystem is vulnerable to a multitude of threats. Some of these threats are extremely challenging to address; others are within people’s capacity if the knowledge is available and the willingness exists. Point Blue is working on both fronts—to furnish scientific information on the effectiveness of California’s MPAs, and to help increase people’s awareness.
Along with protecting prey resources that seabirds need to thrive, MPAs offer broad protections for seabird colonies from direct impacts like human-caused disturbance. Nesting seabirds sometimes use very accessible and public places for their colonies! This is why Dan Robinette is uniting Point Blue’s MPA scientific monitoring with the efforts of the Seabird Protection Network to educate the public. The take-home message: As beach-goers and kayakers we can ensure the success of MPAs by learning how our actions impact seabirds and other ocean wildlife. We can help keep a nest full of cormorant chicks safe if we will only keep our distance!
A recent online video to help the public understand the importance of Marine Protected Areas, produced by the State of California, takes you on a boat tour guided by Dan Robinette and can be viewed at www.visitortv.com/our-shows.