What does Climate Change Mean to Seabirds?

Double-Crested CormorantSeveral seabird species were recently identified as indicators of climate change by a group of climate change researchers, as well as representatives of local and federal agencies. The numerous indicators include both biological (e.g., seabirds and mussels) and physical (e.g., sea-surface temperature and sea level) aspects of the ecosystem. Changes in these indicators could signal that climate change is having an impact on our region. The indicators were developed through a collaborative process that included research scientists and resource managers in order to ensure that the indicators met the information and decision-making needs of managers.

“The report summarizes 12 marine indicators that communicate the status and trends of the environment and the biological responses to climate change and outlines actionable next steps to ensure a healthy marine food web off the California coast.”

— Dr. Jaime Jahncke, Marine Ecologist, Point Blue Conservation Science and working group chair

The seabird species selected as indicators — Brandt’s Cormorant, Cassin’s Auklet, and Common Murre — can provide a sort of “canary in the coalmine” warning when changes are happening with the ocean climate. Changes in seabird diet, the timing of egg laying and in breeding success (the number of eggs laid, chicks hatched, or chicks survived to fledge), can all be monitored and compared against long-term averages, so scientists and managers are aware when any of these metrics are outside of the expected range. “Our long term seabird data sets on the Farallon islands are truly unique. We have continuous baseline data for extending over four decades, which allows us to assess variations over time.” said Russ Bradley, Farallon Island Program Lead at Point Blue Conservation Science. For example, if one species usually lays eggs in the third week of June, but if one year birds begin laying eggs in early May, this could indicate ocean climate shifts and alert scientists to greater changes in the ecosystem.

“The ocean climate indicators will help natural resource agencies and research institutions better understand how climate change is impacting our coast and ocean. Once we have a better understanding of the impacts, agencies can be proactive in addressing potential threats to sensitive wildlife, commercially valuable fisheries, and valuable coastal habitats.”

— Maria Brown, Gulf of the Farallones NMS Superintendent

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