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State of the Birds Report

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Far at Sea: Birds Face Hazards from Fishing, Pollution, and Altered Food Supplies

The State of Ocean Birds


Consider This:

  • At least 81 bird species inhabit our nation’s marine waters, spending their lives at sea and returning to islands and coasts to nest.

  • At least 39% of bird species in U.S. marine waters are believed to be declining, but data are lacking for many species. Improved monitoring is imperative for conservation.

  • Ocean birds travel through waters of many nations and are increasingly threatened by fishing bycatch, pollution, problems on breeding grounds, and food supplies altered by rising ocean temperatures.

  • The health of our oceans and wildlife will improve with policies that address sustainable fishing, changes in food supply, and pollution.

Of 81 ocean bird species, almost half are of conservation concern, including 4 that are federally listed as endangered or threatened. Based on available data, 39% of ocean bird species are declining, 37% stable, and 12% increasing. Too little data exist to determine the population trends for 12% of ocean birds. There were insufficient data to generate an indicator similar to those presented for other habitats in this report, so trend categories were based on a variety of data sets and expert opinion.


Nearly half of ocean birds in the U.S. are of conservation concern, indicating deteriorating ocean conditions. Management policies and sustainable fishing regulations are essential to ensure the health of our oceans.


Trends for Ocean Bird Species



Birds in Trouble

Black-capped Petrel
by Brian L. Sullivan

Federally listed as endangered: Short-tailed Albatross, Hawaiian Petrel. Threatened: (Newell’s) Townsend’s Shearwater, Marbled Murrelet.

  • Mortality from incidental capture in commercial fisheries (bycatch) is the most significant source of mortality for Black-footed and Laysan albatrosses, both species of high conservation concern.

  • The Black-capped Petrel nests locally in the Caribbean and forages off the eastern U.S. seaboard, but little is known about the population size or threats to this rare species.

  • The Ashy Storm-Petrel faces threats at its nesting colonies in southern California and Baja California. In marine foraging areas, it is vulnerable to contaminants, petroleum products, and plastics encountered while foraging.



Oceans may appear to be homogeneous but are composed of distinct habitats created by massive circulating currents. Human activity has affected the health of our oceans even far from land. Photo by Brian L. Sullivan



Major Threats


The Black-footed Albatross, a species
of conservation concern, wanders the
North Pacific for most of the year and
returns to remote islands to breed.
Photo by by Brian L. Sullivan

Resource Use

Longline fisheries worldwide unintentionally injure and drown as many as 60 bird species, especially surface-feeding seabirds such as albatrosses.

Pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, and oil harm ocean birds. Major oil spills kill thousands of birds, but small spills and chronic releases from boats and ports also cause significant harm.

Many seabirds consume floating plastic and may feed it to their chicks. Ninety percent of Laysan Albatrosses surveyed on the Hawaiian Islands had plastic debris in their stomachs.

Climate Change

Sea-surface temperatures have risen up to 4 degrees Fahrenheit in the North Sea and are expected to continue increasing across the world’s oceans, affecting important food sources for ocean birds.

Breeding failures of some seabirds in northern latitudes have been attributed in part to increased pests and diseases that survive in warmer winters.

Kittlitz’s Murrelet population declines probably result from cyclical changes in the oceanic environment and glacial melting, affecting their ability to find food.

In addition to the threats noted above, ocean birds face challenges on their nesting grounds including development, disturbance, invasive species, and sea level rise. (See Hawaiian Islands and Coasts sections.)


Black-footed Albatross
by Brian L. Sullivan


Fisheries laws provide the platform to ensure a sustainable ocean environment and can include provisions to reduce bycatch, orient marine fishery policy toward ecosystem management, and separate conservation and allocation decisions.

International efforts, such as the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, can set a standard for cooperative management of seabirds.

Coordinated, regionwide programs are needed to collect, assess, and distribute data to better assess the status of seabird populations.

Increased monitoring of ocean birds and their food base are essential to measure change in ocean health and help develop more effective conservation actions.


Reasons for Hope

Laysan Albatross
by Brian L. Sullivan

Regulations and voluntary measures to minimize bycatch have been established for U.S. fisheries in Alaska and Hawaii, resulting in significant decreases in ocean bird mortality, especially for Black-footed, Laysan, and Short-tailed albatross.
The recent protection of 335,561 square miles in four Marine National Monuments will greatly improve the health of our oceans, benefiting people as well as birds and other ocean life.


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