Pelagic Ecosystems Overview

Prince William Sound Marine Bird Population Trends

BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES ON A NESTING COLONY IN PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND. BANDED BIRDS, SUCH AS THE ONE IN THE CENTER AND THE ONE IN THE UPPER RIGHT CORNER PROVIDE SCIENTISTS WITH IMPORTANT INFORMATION ABOUT INDIVIDUAL NESTING PATTERNS AND LONGEVITY. PHOTO CREDIT: ELIZABETH LABUNSKI, USFWS

Who We Are

Kathy Kuletz, USFWS Alaska Region

Robert Kaler, USFWS Alaska Region

Robert Kaler, USFWS Alaska Region

Pirouette above the sea,
dive fast on pleated wing
Sand lance for a meal

Why are we sampling?

Almost 30,000 dead marine birds were recovered following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Based on modeling studies using carcass search effort and population data, an estimated 250,000 marine birds were killed in Prince William Sound and the northern Gulf of Alaska. We are continuing to monitor these marine bird monitoring and to synthesize our data with that of other monitoring projects to help determine whether populations injured by the spill are recovering, and if not, why not, and how other environmental variables such as anomalous warm or cold periods affect populations.

Where are we sampling?

We sample throughout all marine waters of Prince William Sound. Using a stratified random sampling design, we sample three strata: shoreline (within 200 m of land), coastal-pelagic (pelagic transects that intersect land), and pelagic (offshore transects). Because 351 transects were randomly chosen, and the same transects were sampled each survey, they represent the variety of coastal and offshore habitats that occur in PWS.

How are we sampling?

We conduct surveys in three strata every other year during the month of July, using three fiberglass boats traveling at low speeds (6-12 mph) to survey the area over a three-week period. Two observers and a boat operator record all marine birds and marine mammals within the transect “window” (100 m either side of the boat). Each team records species, numbers, and behavioral observations directly into a computer, which also records location (latitude and longitude) and environmental conditions. Having exact location information allows us to later overlay our observations and track lines with habitat data such as bathymetry, as well as satellite data on sea surface temperature and salinity.

A pigeon guillemot (Cepphus columba) enjoys a meal of forage fish (sandlance or capelin). Pigeon guillemot populations have still not yet recovered to pre-spill levels following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Photo by Tamara Zeller, USFWS.

A PIGEON GUILLEMOT (CEPPHUS COLUMBA) ENJOYS A MEAL OF FORAGE FISH (SANDLANCE OR CAPELIN). PIGEON GUILLEMOT POPULATIONS HAVE STILL NOT YET RECOVERED TO PRE-SPILL LEVELS FOLLOWING THE EXXON VALDEZ OIL SPILL. PHOTO CREDIT: TAMARA ZELLER, USFWS.

What are we finding?

Overall, during the 23-year period of this study, several bird species that forage offshore and eat fish declined and some species that forage nearshore and eat snails and mussels increased. These results suggest that changes in the pelagic food web hindered the recovery of fish-eating birds in particular, while nearshore species do not appear to be affected by these changes.