PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 135, Winter 2004: Joint Ventures


The future of fisheries off of western North America is intimately linked with the future of the ecosystem's integrity.

A Conservation Plan for Marine Birds of the California Current

Gregg Elliott, Claire Peaslee & Ellie Cohen

Joint Ventures
Sonoran Desert Joint Venture
Marine Bird Conservation
A Proposed Joint Venture at Sea
Central Valley Habitat Joint Venture
Riparian Habitat Joint Venture
San Francisco Bay Joint Venture
Seabird Awareness
Bird Bio
Focus on Black Brant
John L. Jones
Facilities Search
Grand List

Black-footed Albatross (with one Laysan here) are among the far-traveled marine birds congregating seasonally at the "feeding trough" of the North Pacific, the California Current System. Photo © Eric Preston.
The first step for state-of-the-art conservation in the ocean is science-based understanding of what's needed and why. This article is drawn from PRBO's new Marine Bird Conservation Plan, edited by Marine Ecology Division biologist Kyra Mills and Director William J. Sydeman.

Rising concern in recent years over the long-term health of seabirds and marine ecosystems--affected by commercial and recreational fishing, oil spills, climate change, and other impacts--has translated into PRBO producing the first of its kind, collaboratively developed "California Current Marine Bird Conservation Plan."

The California Current System (CCS), stretching from southern British Columbia to Baja California and offshore 200 miles, is one of five highly productive eastern boundary currents in the world. The CCS is a major "feeding trough" of the northern Pacific Ocean for top-of-the-food-chain wildlife. It supports millions of creatures synonymous with the beauty, grandeur, and health of the ocean--whales, seals, sea lions, seabirds, and sea turtles--many of which migrate across the Pacific to feed here. The CCS also supports numerous fisheries, including salmon, herring, squid, and groundfish, that are essential to the economies of North America's coastal communities.

Yet there are serious threats to the health and productivity of this vital marine ecosystem, from overfishing, bycatch (when non-target fish and other wildlife are killed), habitat destruction, climate change, and pollution.

Fishing impacts have received much scrutiny, and fishers themselves, somewhat unfairly, have received the brunt of criticism for problems in ocean management. In reality, the situation is extremely complex, and the future of fisheries off the coast of western North America is intimately linked with the future of the ecosystem's integrity and function. The problems are interrelated: their sources overlap; they tend to exacerbate one another; their effects are magnified through the food chain; and they affect all wildlife--either directly or indirectly.

Cassin's Auklet. Photo © Eric Preston

Birds are excellent indicators of ocean ecosystem health and function. The CCS Plan focuses on understanding seabird interactions with their food webs to achieve our goal of a healthy marine environment.

At least 54 common migrants and 38 breeding species are drawn to the high concentration of food such as as fish, squid, and zooplankton in the CCS. Protecting habitat "hot spots," where seabirds and other top-level marine predators congregate to feed, cannot be accomplished simply by buying them. The ocean is a shared public resource, so strategies to protect it need to focus on stewardship--on fostering appropriate uses and minimizing or (when possible) eliminating threats.

Similar to other conservation plans that PRBO has produced (for example, in riparian and oak woodland habitats), the CCS Plan discusses ecological needs of key bird species; reviews threats; provides numerous specific research and management recommendations; and aims to facilitate region-wide partnerships and coordinated research and monitoring. Unlike land-based efforts, the new marine bird plan encompasses a vast geographic expanse and a highly variable ecosystem.

The CCS Plan's 12 chapters include: Current Seabird Status; Seabird Habitats; Demography and Population Dynamic Models as a Cornerstone of Seabird Conservation and Management; Climate and Food ("Bottom Up" Control of Seabird Population Dynamics); Predators, Competitors, Disease, and Human Interactions ("Top Down" Control of Seabird Population Dynamics); Use of Seabirds as Ecological Indicators and Biological Samplers; Current and Historic Seabird Research; and Education and Outreach (see page 9).In addition there are 20 tables, ranging from breeding seabirds' distribution in the CCS to fisheries that operate here and have documented and potential seabird impacts.

Effective management of this vast oceanic domain will require comprehensive, cross-jurisdictional approaches and innovative tools. The CCS Plan provides a "seabird perspective"--a new advantage in efforts to more fully understand food web dynamics, identify productivity "hot spots" for protection, and enhance fishery management plans.

We hope the CCS Plan will be a living document. The initial version represents the start of a long-term process of evaluation and review. Ultimately, we envision a California Current Joint Venture (page 5) to implement the Plan's recommendations for successful ocean conservation.

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