Common Eider die-offs in the news

6 05 2014
A cheery looking Chris Dwyer with a less cheery looking eider (Boston Globe photo)

A cheery looking Chris Dwyer with a less cheery looking eider (Boston Globe photo)

While visiting my parents the other day, my father brought the paper in from outside and tossed it on the table. Imagine my surprise when I caught sight of a picture of our partner, Chris Dwyer, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in a front page article in the Boston Globe. The story highlights the work of a cadre of biologists, Massachusetts state and local officials, and a veterinary surgical team. The group went to work on the Boston Harbor Islands, the southern limit of the Common Eider’s breeding range. Team members came from a number of institutions and agencies, including US Fish and Wildlife Service, USGS, University of Pennsylvania, USDA, Biodiversity Research Institute, National Park Service, and Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation and Division of Fisheries and Wildlife seeking to continue their research on Wellfleet Bay Virus, a newly discovered pathogen suspected of driving the annual die-offs of eiders on the Cape. The crew was able to capture, band and sample 38 birds. Ten males and nine females also had satellite tags surgically implanted before their release. Two of the captured birds had been previously sampled in earlier years, so the researchers are eager to see how their viral test results compare over time.

It was a very successful trip, and we’re excited to see what the results show as they come in. Congrats to this hard working team, and an additional congratulations to Chris himself, who recently won the prestigious William T. Hesselton award for distinguished service by a Northeast wildlife professional. Kudos on the win, Chris; very well deserved!


Where have all the razorbills gone?

4 09 2013
A Razorbill fitted with a solar powered satellite tag!

A Razorbill fitted with a solar powered satellite tag! (photo by L. Welch)

Do you lie awake at night wondering where alcids go when they’re done raising their young? Given this winter’s mortality events in puffins and razorbills, I sometimes do. And thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I can slake my curiosity. Linda Welch and her team at the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge have deployed satellite tags on ten Razorbills, and it looks like all but one are still going strong. (That bird, known as “Roosevelt,” has, evidently, not been heard from in weeks.) You can track the individual birds at this study link, and even sign up to get daily updates from the project. The purpose of the work addresses a perennial problem in seabird research; for a short and focused period during breeding, the birds are accessible and relatively easy to study. Once they leave the breeding colony, however, they are largely lost to follow up and our knowledge of their behavior and ecology becomes hazy indeed.

With the satellite tags, each bird’s precise location can be determined instantaneously, giving information on both small scale, daily movements, and large scale migrations. After this past winter’s unprecedented irruption of Razorbills all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, it will be most intriguing to see where these birds go this winter. By tracking their movements, and knowing more about where they like to spend time foraging and which areas they only pass through briefly, these researchers can be in a better position to advise developers of offshore wind projects how best to site these farms. Welch and the USFWS team recognize the immense value in renewable energy, but they also want to do right by seabirds. And SEANET applauds them!

Where the sea meets the sky: government agencies formalize collaboration

20 09 2012

Unaware of the oversight of two different agencies, these seabirds forage perilously close to a fishing vessel.

We have a tendency to think of our federal government as a monolithic force with a consistent, and very general, federal perspective on things. As one delves into the day to day activities of particular government agencies, it becomes rapidly clear how distinct, separate, and sometimes even isolated they are from each other. In our experience with SEANET, we have worked most closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), followed rather closely by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), specifically their National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The list of acronyms grows ever more dizzying, as we have had occasion to interact with The USDA and their Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and within that, their Wildlife Services (WS) division. When we work on a disease outbreak with the federal government, it’s (strangely) through the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). A project like ours tends to cross the boundaries between these agencies on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, so it can be a challenge to remember that they do not, necessarily, keep in close contact with each other. This is not a criticism: these so-called “siloed” agencies each have their own mandates and areas of focus. With so much information and so many resources to manage, we require specialized agencies to keep on top of it all. In fact, we revere specialized knowledge and expertise in our daily lives; smart as a rocket scientist may be, I’d prefer she not deliver my baby or represent me in a court of law.

So given the need for specialization and a somewhat narrow focus, the question is, how can these agencies ensure communication and collaboration when their mandates and purviews do overlap? Two such parties, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service have now issued a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), outlining their shared and divergent interests, the need for increased information sharing, and greater cooperation. The MOU, at its most basic level, says formally, “We will speak to each other.” But by putting this into writing, the relationship between the two agencies is publicly and officially declared. The MOU also gets into a great deal of specifics, and is focused particularly on seabird/fisheries interactions. With one agency (FWS) overseeing the well-being of aerial seabirds, and another (NMFS) the stewardship of marine resources below the waves, it has been difficult to effectively address the threats to either that occur at the interface between the two. Policies that end at the water’s surface will never be sufficient for either side.

Seabirds forage near fishing vessels and get fatally entangled in fishing gear. Endangered fish stocks may face additional pressures from growing populations of Great Black-backed or Herring Gulls. The interconnectedness and complexity of even a relatively simple food web defies the siloed nature of our agencies. FWS and NMFS have recognized the need to bridge the gap in order to maintain sustainable fisheries and protect seabird populations.

We at SEANET applaud this MOU, and as an independent, University-based program, welcome the formalization of a relationship between two of our most important government partners. From use of our Beached Bird Field Guides by NMFS Fisheries Observers, to SEANET volunteers documenting seabird entanglements in gillnets, our program fully inhabits the spaces between the groups and we fully appreciate the need for close collaboration.

We hope to both contribute to, and reinforce this newly stated bond between two agencies working hard to defend and understand the wide range of organisms inhabiting our marine environment.

Endangered status considered for Black-capped Petrel

26 06 2012

Gliding toward endangered status?

In response to a petition filed by WildEarth Guardians in September of last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has begun a 12 month process examining the conservation status of the Black-capped Petrel. The decision, known as a 90-day finding, triggers a thorough review of existing data on the Caribbean-nesting birds, and the public is encouraged to submit documentation about the bird, its habitat, and potential threats to its survival by August 20.

In a previous post, I gave a bit of background on the life history of this secretive seabird, but there remains much that is unknown about them. Regarding threats to the species, the USFWS  writes:

“The black-capped petrel faces many potential threats to its continued existence, including human encroachment, deforestation, agricultural modification, offshore oil exploration and development, overuse from subsistence hunting, predation by introduced species, pollution, mercury bioaccumulation and inadequate regulatory mechanisms. […]  Pollution, bioaccumulation of heavy metals, and oil spills potentially threaten the existence of the petrel as researchers have noted that the species has a mercury concentration seven to nine times higher than other similar seabirds.

Additionally, impacts specific to the black-capped petrels could include changes in habitat suitability, loss of nesting burrows washed out by rain or flooding, increased petrel strandings inland during storm events, and increased risk from animal-borne disease (emphasis mine).”

These last are most certainly the domain of the Seanetter, and of our wildlife disease investigating cousins over at the Northeast Wildlife Disease Cooperative. It isn’t surprising that Seanetters have never found a beached Black-capped Petrel since they are, obviously, rare enough to be considered for endangered species status. But we do pride ourselves on being a clearinghouse for all dead seabird news, and we will contribute any information we gather on the species during this 90 day period. All members of the public can submit comments via the Federal Goverment’s ePortal, but be aware that at this point in the process, the government is looking for scientific reports, journal articles, unpublished data, photo documentation and the like. Evidence, in other words, rather than personal reflection or simple pleas for the species. These will be noted if submitted, but will not sway the decision making at this point.

We will, of course, be following this story for you, Seanetters, and welcome any input or questions you may have along the way. It should be a good civics lesson on how the Endangered Species listing process works.