North Coast seabirds and new marine reserves

October 6th, 2011 · by Anna Weinstein

New marine reserves and seabird colony protections have recently been planned for our wild and remote north coast under California’s innovative Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA). In September a small group set out on calm seas to take a look at several of the areas selected for new protections. We were rewarded with an inspiring wildlife spectacle that underscores the critical importance of protecting California’s marine habitats for the good of wildlife across the Pacific.

Our party of four led by marine ornithologist and Crescent City resident Craig Strong first headed to Castle Rock National Wildlife Refuge, located just off of Crescent City. Its unassuming presence belies its status as the second-largest seabird colony south of Canada. It is an an ideal seabird breeding island, with the right types of habitats to support surface, burrow, and crevice-nesting seabirds and close proximity to rich foraging areas. Craig pointed out a set of burrows clustered together, reminiscent of a rabbit warren, likely dug and used by Tufted Puffins and Fork-tailed Storm-petrels.
By far the most abundant breeding seabird at Castle Rock and the whole north coast is the Common Murre, a beautiful brown and white bird that was decimated by gill nets in the 1970’s and 80’s, but happily has somewhat recovered following a ban on these terribly destructive nets plus successful efforts by state biologists to attract birds back to abandoned colonies. The waters around Castle Rock were peppered with Murre fathers and their almost-fledged chicks calling to each other as we approached. California sea lions, Steller’s sea lions and Brandt’s Cormorants covered all the rocks near the island, occasionally bickering over space. A pair of Black Oystercatchers called from the rocky shore. Moulting Rhinoceros Auklets and Marbled Murrelets fluttered weakly on scraggly wings, and Cassin’s Auklets were everywhere.
All told, thirteen species of seabirds breed at Castle Rock and across the north coast MLPA section from the Oregon border to Pt. Arena. Liberally dotted with rocks and islets, this part of our state is home to 40% of California’s breeding seabirds. Wild and sparsely populated, there is an opportunity here to take a precautionary approach to conservation – to secure protection for marine wildlife before it is heavily impacted by people.
“When I first joined the Marine Life Protection Act science team,” said Craig, “I wasn’t convinced that these small reserves would make a difference here. But I’ve since changed my mind.” He cited the global importance of this area for pacific predators, the dramatic improvements in the size and densities of marine life, including rockfish, at new marine reserves at Channel Islands National Park; the benefits to seabirds provided by small reserves; and the fact that the seabirds are more vulnerable to climate change than any other group of birds. “These small reserves will help build resiliency in a system that is changing really fast,” said Craig. And this in turn will help seabirds adapt to their new world.”
Therefore there was a good deal to be gained for seabirds through the North Coast MLPA, and Audubon was there every step of the way. Mendocino Coast chapter president Dave Jensen was appointed to the Regional Stakeholder Group and worked closely with Audubon California to identify and promote the most important seabird colonies and associated marine habitats. Chapter leader Ron LeValley was on the state science team (along with Craig) that evaluated the benefits to seabirds, marine ducks and shorebirds provided by the proposed reserves and special closures.
All of these efforts resulted in a network of coastal and estuarine reserves that represents a compromise among multiple stakeholders and as such does not satisfy any one constituency. What is does do – if adopted by the California Fish and Game Commission – is protect from all extractive use 51 square miles of marine habitat totaling 5% of the region’s waters. Another 82 square miles (8%) is protected from most extractive uses.
Additionally and just as important, seven of the most important seabird colonies will be closed year round or seasonally to incursion within 300 feet. This will prevent most human disturbance including trampling of burrows and other sensitive habitat, as well as flushing of birds from colonies due to vessel incursion. This is good for birds and good for the region’s depressed economy: coastal tourism and wildlife watching are the region’s biggest revenue generators, bringing in $70 million annually to Del Norte and Humboldt counties.
We passed Castle Rock and headed toward historic Pt. St George lighthouse. Here were large numbers of distant migrants Sooty Shearwater, a few Pink-footed Shearwater and one Black-footed Albatross. Most dramatically, there were at least 50 humpback whales, apparently feeding on krill swarms near the surface. (Krill, the linchpin of the marine food chain, are forever protected here through the under-appreciated 2007 ban on krill harvest in California, Oregon and Washington.) Craig turned off the motor and the only sounds were the surfacing whales and thousands of seabirds all around us. It was a magical moment, and one we can preserve for future generations, with the help of the Marine Life Protection Act and other good conservation policies.
The fate of the North Coast network now lies in the hands of the Fish and Game Commission, which will be voting on it later this year. Please let the Commissioners know that you would like to see the North Coast network adopted without further weakening. Send your comment to: fgc {at} before November 1.  And if you would like to take a first hand look at the marine wildlife of the north coast, contact Mendocino Coast Audubon which runs pelagic trips.

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