17 March 2009

Benefits of Pacific Marine Monuments for Seabirds

The recent designation of three new marine monuments by federal officials will have great benefits for seabirds of the central Pacific Ocean.

The three areas, covering 195,274 square miles, are:

¶ Marianas Trench Marine National Monument,
¶ Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument; and
¶ Rose Atoll Marine National Monument

"The important and precedent-setting nature of this action lies in the acknowledgment by policy-makers that pelagic - open ocean habitats are essential to seabirds for foraging and can be protected in the same way as terrestrial habitat," said Beth Flint, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"The estimated 14 million resident seabirds using the breeding islands and waters of the Central tropical Pacific are primarily pelagic feeders." – F.W.S. report

There are several important values associated with bird-life of the newly designated marine monuments in the central tropics.

  • "The areas designated are used by over 4 million tropical seabirds that breed on Monument Islands and at least 10 million more that are pre-breeders or migrants passing through those waters on their way to Northern and Southern breeding grounds.
  • "These waters are particularly important for Sooty Terns, Grey-backed Terns, Lesser Frigatebirds, and Masked Boobies surrounding islands that support over half the world’s population at some times of year.
  • "The pelagic habitat (12- 200 miles) in the Central Tropical Pacific is not just the blue space on a chart but a complex and heterogeneous ocean ecosystem on which almost all life in the marine tropics depends.
  • "Seabirds are dependent on obtaining their food as a result of tuna and other large predatory fish feeding near the surface of the ocean. They require the presence of these large fish to concentrate prey and force it to the surface where they can capture it.
  • "During the breeding season a seabird’s success depends on the presence of tuna and other large fish foraging within 300 miles of the breeding colony.
  • "A particularly high level of marine ecosystem protection (no take) within 12 miles of seabird breeding colonies is warranted because local hydrographic and biological features are particularly important environments of more concentrated productivity that most seabird species and some migratory fish species need during their reproductive phases.
  • "The impact of large-scale commercial purse seine fishing goes beyond depletion of the stocks of target pelagic species to include impacts to a variety of other fish, marine turtles, and marine mammals and the reduction of tuna biomass which reduces the foraging opportunities for seabirds."

Migrants that transit the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and Rose Atoll Marine National Monument. Information courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

  • Mottled Petrel
  • Murphy’s Petrel
  • Kermadec Petrel
  • Herald Petrel
  • Juan Fernandez Petrel
  • Cook’s Petrel
  • Black-winged Petrel
  • Stejneger’s Petrel
  • Providence Petrel
  • Pycroft’s Petrel
  • Tahiti Petrel
  • Phoenix Petrel
  • Gould’s Petrel
  • Collared Petrel
  • Pink-footed Shearwater
  • Flesh-footed Shearwater
  • Buller’s Shearwater
  • Sooty Shearwater
  • Slender-billed Shearwater
  • Wilson’s Storm-petrel
  • Leach’s Storm-petrel
  • Band-rumped Storm-petrel
  • White-throated Storm-petrel
  • Pomarine Jaeger
  • Parasitic Jaeger
  • Long-tailed Jaeger
  • South Polar Skua

"We haven't the vaguest idea how many of each of the non-breeding species use the Monument waters as systematic quantitative pelagic surveys have never been done around any of these islands," Flint said. "There are no land birds at these sites except for a few species of migratory shorebirds that winter in small numbers at each site (Bristle-thighed Curlews, Pacific Golden Plovers, Wandering Tattlers, and Ruddy Turnstones being the most numerous)."

"Closing these areas to commercial fishing may protect high densities of tuna near the breeding colonies and will reduce vessel traffic near reefs and islands thus reducing the chances of accidental groundings,” Flint said. "Shipwrecks are disastrous for these areas both because of the release of oil and the chance of introducing invasive species of land and marine organisms to these fragile communities.”

These areas - associated with national wildlife refuges - were previously protected by the agency, "so habitat for wintering shorebirds and breeding seabirds on land that was already protected in the National Wildlife Refuges remains much the same," she said.

Within the monument areas designated, are Howland Island, Baker Island, Jarvis Island, Palmyra Atoll, and Kingman Reef National Wildlife Refuges.

An announcement by Dirk Kempthorne, secretary of the Department of the Interior, on January 16th, "expanded the National Wildlife Refuge System by 54 million acres, or 58 percent, by assigning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the responsibility for overall management of the three new marine national monuments in the Pacific Ocean designated by President Bush earlier this month."

Presidential proclamations detailed features for the new monuments in the Pacific:

Marianas Trench Marine National Monument (Proclamation 8335 of January 6, 2009
1) "the waters and submerged lands encompassing the coral reef ecosystem of the three northernmost islands. These islands represent some of the westernmost territory in the United States – 5,600 miles from California.
2) "the Marianas Trench. The trench, the site of the deepest place on Earth, is approximately 940 nautical miles long and 38 nautical miles wide within the Exclusive Economic Zone of the United States.
3) "a series of active undersea volcanoes and thermal vents. Twenty-one active hydrothermal submarine volcanoes and vents support life in the harshest conditions imaginable."
Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (Proclamation 8336
"...protects the pristine coral reef ecosystems around Kingman Reef, Palmyra Atoll, Howland, Baker, and Jarvis Islands, Johnston Atoll, and Wake Island – the site of a pivotal battle in World War II and an important military base today."
Rose Atoll Marine National Monument (Proclamation 8337
"...protects the pristine coral reef ecosystem around a remote part of American Samoa."

Another large marine monument was designated... "On June 15, 2006, President Bush established the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) as the Papahanaumokuakea Hawaii Islands Marine National Monument by Presidential Proclamation 8031, providing permanent protection for the nearly 140,000 square miles of U.S. land and waters, thereby creating the world’s largest marine conservation area. The area includes the NWHI Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge/Battle of Midway National Memorial, the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, and the State of Hawaii’s NWHI Refuge."

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument was established in 1998, by President Bush.

An approved area management plan for Papahanaumokuakea was issued in December 2008, noting these broad focus areas as the bird component of management objectives:

1) Protect and enhance habitats for terrestrial and marine migratory birds
2) Minimize the impact of threats to migratory birds such as habitat destruction by invasive species, disease, contaminants (including oil), and fisheries interactions
3) Monitor populations and habitats of migratory birds to ascertain natural variation and to detect changes in excess of that variation that might be attributed to human activities, including anthropogenic climate change.
4) As threats are removed, restore seabird species at sites where they have been extirpated.

It is a planned process on understanding lands to be newly managed, and the process similar to that for Papahanaumokuakea will result in a management plan.

"There are no seabird surveys occurring anywhere in the Monument this spring," Flint said. "The first monitoring visit this year will be in August when standard bird surveys will be conducted at Rose Atoll. To really do a thorough job of estimating population sizes and breeding performance of tropical seabirds requires a year-round presence because of their aseasonality and asynchrony of breeding. We hope to have a year round presence at Palmyra Atoll in the future but do not at this time.

"The only research in which birds play a role now is being done by a graduate student from Stanford University named Hillary Young who is studying the role of seabirds in nutrient flow in atoll systems at Palmyra. She will be doing some fieldwork this year at Palmyra Atoll.

"The importance of these largest of the remaining populations of seabirds in the Central tropical Pacific becomes even greater as we anticipate the dramatic ecological changes to come as global climate change accelerates. Maintaining healthy populations in these remote Monuments for now will serve to facilitate restoration and re-colonization of other Pacific sites essential to these species survival in the future."

Websites of interest.

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