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Stressed Seabirds Make Lousy Parents
By Linda Hunter, Executive Director
Seabirds, particularly those species that nest and roost on cliffs or offshore rocks, can easily be spooked by humans. When we get too close to seabird colonies, the birds experience higher stress levels and expend more energy.
Frequent human disturbance can disrupt critical seabird behaviors such as finding good nesting sites, defending their nests and feeding their young. Birds may leave their eggs and chicks unprotected from predators and adverse weather conditions.
Eggs and chicks may even be dislodged from the rocks or moved into areas where they may be attacked or killed. Repeated disturbance may result in total colony abandonment.
Significant seabird populations nest along the north-central California coast. This area, including the Farallon Islands, supports the largest concentrations of breeding seabirds in the contiguous United States.
Seabirds are indicator species of the overall health of the marine ecosystem just off our shore. They have long lives and low reproductive rates. To breed successfully and maintain populations, seabirds have evolved to nest in areas such as offshore rocks, islands, and steep mainland cliffs that are inaccessible to most land predators.
Potential to harm or disturb breeding seabirds can come from popular coastal activities including kayaking, boating and coastal hiking; flying planes and helicopters; water-based ecotourism such as diving or surfing; and fishing operations.
In 1998, the tanker vessel Command left San Francisco Bay bound for Panama. As it traveled in the southbound traffic lane off San Francisco and San Mateo County coasts, it released an estimated 3,000 gallons of fuel oil. The spill killed more than 1,500 sea birds and scattered tarballs over 15 miles of beaches, mainly in San Mateo County.
The Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary’s Seabird Colony Protection Program aims to restore seabird populations that were affected by the Command Oil Spill. The successful prosecution of the Command and the recovery of natural resource damages mark the first time a tanker vessel has been held accountable for illegally dumping oil in California.
Common Murres and Marbled Murrelets were among the seabirds most affected by the spill and many miles of beaches between Año Nuevo and Pacifica were oiled. The Farallon Islands are breeding seabird hotspots that were also affected by the Command spill.
The goal of the Seabird Colony Protection Program is to improve the survival and recruitment of California's seabird species by reducing human disturbances at their breeding and roosting colony sites from Point Sur to Point Reyes. The program promotes increased public awareness, coupled with coordinated management and strategic partnerships to effectively address the issue of seabird disturbance.
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