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State of the Birds Report

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Birds Depend on Healthy Oceans and Protected Islands



• Publicly owned islands support more than half of the entire global nesting population of 16 ocean bird species.

• Major threats to breeding colonies
include introduced predators and invasive plants.

• Major threats to foraging birds include interactions with oil, other pollution, competition with fisheries, and bycatch (the unintended take of birds and other wildlife).

• The overall protection of the oceanic resources within designated Marine Protected Areas is vital to improving foraging habitat for ocean birds.
  Image: Atlantic Puffin by Katherine Whittemore, USFWS  
Public agencies can dramatically improve conditions for ocean birds
by managing threats such as invasive species, competition with fisheries, human disturbance, and contaminants.

Ocean Birds on Public Lands

Nearly half of the ocean bird species in the U.S. are of conservation concern. Most ocean birds breed on remote islands, a majority of which are publicly managed, primarily by the USFWS.

These islands support more than half of the entire global population of 16 of the 48 ocean bird species that nest in the United States. Publicly owned lands are especially important to the endangered Hawaiian Petrel, with more than 90% of its breeding population on these lands.

Colonial nesting birds, such as the Blackfooted Albatross, Red-legged Kittiwake, Pelagic Cormorant, and Ashy Storm-Petrel depend heavily on oceanic food resources. Thus conservation and management that preserves oceanic ecosystems are critical for conservation.

NOAA is the primary federal agency that manages our oceans in partnership with states and other federal agencies. Federal agencies and states also manage activities conducted in oceans within designated Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Conservation Successes

Invasive species are a major threat to island nesting ocean birds. Active management, particularly complete eradication of invasive species, can yield stunning results.

For example, the nesting success of Xantus’s Murrelet increased by 81% on Anacapa Island in Channel Islands National Park (California) after rats were eradicated. The Alaska Maritime National WildlifeRefuge removed introduced foxes from many of its islands, resulting in increases of more than 200,000 breeding seabirds of at least 15 species.

In Haleakala National Park, an endangered Hawaiian Petrel colony had only 400 known nests in the 1980s. Intensive management and predator control beginning in the 1980s have led to an increase to more than 1,500 known nests.

At Maine’s Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, Atlantic Puffins were restored using translocations and puffin decoys to attract nesting birds to the protected island. Now the 500 pairs of puffins in this remote island refuge are the largest colony of this threatened species in Maine. At nearby Matinicus Rock, an Audubon project used decoys and sound recordings to attract the first nesting Common Murres in the Northeast since 1883.

Conservation Challenges

Few islands are unaffected by invasive animals and plants, which are responsible for the loss of millions of nesting ocean birds every year. Feral ungulates destroy habitat and trample nests; introduced mammals such as rats, foxes, pigs, goats, and feral cats are especially destructive because they can kill large numbers of long-lived breeding ocean birds in short periods of time.

Invasive plants can be just as lethal. Management can be difficult and expensive because most breeding bird colonies are remote, with some management agencies unable to conduct site visits more than every few years. Invasive species eradication projects tend to be expensive, often requiring partnerships to fund implementation, presenting an opportunity and challenge for private parties and public agencies to realize conservation victories together.

Competition for oceanic resources with commercial and recreational fisheries, bycatch, and pollution are threats to ocean birds globally. MPAs in the U.S. may allow some protections of these resources through restrictions on commercial or recreational fisheries and human access, but these protections vary widely.

Marine Protected Areas

MPAs are defined areas where natural and/or cultural resources receive greater protection than surrounding waters, but the level of protection varies greatly. More than 1,600 MPAs have been designated in the U.S., spanning a range of habitats including open ocean, coastal areas, intertidal zones, estuaries, and the Great Lakes. MPAs include diverse ecosystems and resources and are managed by federal, state, and county agencies. About 40% of U.S. waters are in MPAs, of which most are multiple-use and only 1% do not allow any take of natural resources.

The overall protection of oceanic resources within MPAs is expected to result in increased stocks of forage fish for ocean birds. For example, five years after the establishment of the Channel Islands marine reserve network in California, there were measureable increases in the species targeted by fisheries inside reserves. These fish species include important prey for ocean birds that use the waters around the Channel Islands or that breed locally.

An evaluation of the presence or absence of foraging ocean bird hotspots within MPAs in the California Current region (from the Straits of Juan de Fuca in Washington to the California/Mexico border except for the Puget Sound region) found that 193 MPAs (73%) included ocean bird hotspots. The majority of MPAs that contain these hotspots have some level of fishing restrictions, with 70 prohibiting commercial fishing and 49 prohibiting recreational fishing. Protection of ocean resources through MPAs may not be adequate for assuring benefit to ocean bird species. For example, species that are wide-ranging, such as highly pelagic foragers, rely on prey whose distributions may shift unpredictably in response to changes associated with climate change.


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