Tag Archives: Conservation

Welcome, Jenn!


Jenn holding an Atlantic Puffin chick on Eastern Egg Rock Island, Maine.

This fall, we welcomed a new graduate student to COASST: Jennifer Ma. Jenn comes to the UW from New York, where she completed her undergraduate degree in Wildlife Science at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. As a graduate student, she’ll be working with our COASST data to “explore the unexplored:” trends and emerging patterns from the last fifteen years of beached birds. Jenn’s first look at the data involves digging deeper into the 2009 algal bloom event on the Washington coast.

Dead birds aren’t the only kind of birds she’s interested in. As an avid birder and former field technician, Jenn has a lot of love for seabirds and other feathered friends. Since graduating in 2011, she has done field work in New Jersey with Piping Plovers, in Maine with Project Puffin, in Australia with Fairy-wrens, and in New Hampshire with warblers. She’s also traveled in between jobs to Ireland, throughout Australia, and New Zealand (birding, of course).

Jenn is excited to get her graduate degree up and running and we look forward to sharing her results!

Good News for Marbled Murrelets



Earlier this month a federal judge ruled that Marbled Murrelets would remain protected under the Endangered Species Act, despite a movement by the timber industry to remove these protections and expand logging activities in coastal forests. This has been the fourth failed attempt made by the timber industries in the Pacific Northwest to eliminate protection for Marbled Murrelet habitat. In addition, the court ruled that the old growth forest areas where these birds nest will remain protected from deforestation for the next three years. The Marbled Murrelet has been listed as threatened by the Endangered Species Act since 1992.

Old growth forests are used by the Marbled Murrelets for nesting and raising their young, making the existence of the habitat critical for murrelet survival. These small Alcids create nests high on the branches of inland old growth trees. At night, they fly to the coast to fish and hunt food for their nestlings: a unique nesting behavior makes Marbled Murrelets especially vulnerable.

For more information, on this story can be found here.


Researcher Profile: Selina Heppell

What do sea turtles, sharks, sturgeon, and rockfish all have in common? Dr. Selina Heppell, marine fisheries ecologist and a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University, would tell you that these marine creatures all have long lifespans, mature at a late age, and are threatened by over-harvest and habitat loss (the typical story of a top predator). COASST Intern, An Huynh, had the opportunity to ask Selina some questions about her research.

Heppell uses computer models and simulations (i.e. some pretty complex math) to assess how their populations change in response to environmental factors and applies those results to aid conservation and management decisions. Her passion for marine biology takes Heppell all over the world: to teach conservation of biodiversity in the sea in Iceland, help international partners develop sustainable fisheries policies in the Mediterranean, work with high school teachers in Mississippi.

Selina Heppell explains her dissection of a Humboldt squid to a group of students on the coast.

Selina explains her dissection of a Humboldt squid to a group of students on the Oregon coast.


me on 2 computers

How many computers does it take? In this case, two. A lot of Heppell’s research is done using models and simulations to assess how marine populations change in response to environmental factors.

A native to the Pacific Northwest, Selina dove into marine biology early, as a volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium when she was only 12. Her sense of wonder and amazement continues, “I love to tell people about cool stuff in the ocean.” So what’s the coolest thing she’s learned? “Sea turtles have finger-like projections in their throats to help them retain and swallow food while spitting the water back out. Unfortunately, it also means that that they can’t throw up very easily – whatever goes in has to pass all the way through. This is one reason why plastic bags and balloons are a big problem for them!” As COASST expands into marine debris, we’re lucky to have Selina’s expertise on our advisory board, as we examine which characteristics make certain debris harmful to specific marine species/species groups.

Even if you eliminated the marine debris threat, Sea turtles aren’t “out of the woods,” so to speak. Marine turtle populations are also highly sensitive to bycatch, or unintended fisheries take. Although protective measures have been put into place to mitigate bycatch effects (e.g. modifying trawl nets with “turtle excluder devices“), it still takes a long time to see a response in sea turtle populations. Due to this delayed response time, there are growing efforts to monitor sea turtles in the ocean instead of just protecting them on the beaches where they nest.

Heppell measures a sea turtle in the field.

Measuring a sea turtle in the field – carapace length.

Besides her field/at-sea time, as a professor, Selina spends a bunch of time with graduate and undergraduate students at Oregon State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. Does all the field “work” in her lab involve snorkeling at tropical locales? Selina reminds our youngest COASSTers that the road to becoming a marine scientist is hard work: “it’s a discipline that relies on rigorous data collection and evaluation of evidence.” (COASSTers have some familiarity with the difficulty of evaluating evidence, on a small scale, using the keys, measurements and photos in the Beached Birds guide). Far from a “Discovery Channel degree,” prospective students “need to be dedicated to learning the scientific method and how to contribute data and results to conservation problems objectively,” adds Selina.

Beyond the typical classroom, Heppell sees value in any projects that boost public awareness in conservation biology and marine ecosystems, “COASST is particularly valuable because it gets people thinking about what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘not so natural’ and how systems change through time over very large areas.” After many years of involving and engaging the public through lectures, teacher workshops and citizen science programs, for Selina the benefit to marine conservation efforts is two-fold, “getting people to think about connections in nature can help marine conservation indirectly, and/or directly through political action or contributions to conservation and science efforts.”

selina teaching teachers 3 ketchum

Selina Heppell speaks to a group of teachers about marine policy at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.



Refuges For Endangered Hawaiian Seabirds

The West Maui Mountains between Kajakuloa and Makamakaole has historically been home to many breeding seabirds, but in recent years this population has been in steep decline. Habitat conservationists are hoping that next year they will begin to hear the songs of native seabird species in these hills again.

Two bird enclosures are in the process of being built by First Wind, a Boston-based renewable energy company that operates the Kaheawa wind farms above Maalaea. The enclosures are for the endangered Hawaiian Petrel (uau) and the Newell’s Shearwater (ao). First Wind agreed to put the conservation plan together in order to offset potential impacts of the wind farms and ensure a “long-term net conservation benefit”.

A Hawaiian Petrel, an endangered species that this project is hoping to help.

A Hawaiian Petrel, an endangered species that this project is hoping to help.

The already installed shearwater enclosure has a predator-proof fence around 3-4 acres of breeding habitat. Many predators were trapped and removed and the fences will be checked each week for any breaches in security. Additionally, artificial burrows will be placed in each enclosure. The second enclosure will be installed within the next couple of weeks, and both enclosures are to be fully completed by fall.

Why is there a need for these enclosures? Native seabirds were first driven to near extinction after early seafarers used the birds as food. More modern day threats mainly include introduced island predators. “We know that there are shearwaters here, but they’re being (preyed upon) by mongoose and cats,” said Steve Sawyer, president of EcoWorks New Zealand, which designed the enclosures for First Wind and has built similar enclosures on other Pacific islands.

Sawyer brought two specialists with seabird detecting dogs to help search for remnant Hawaiian petrel burrows. After weeks of hiking all over the mountain, the search team found only dead petrels.

Attempts will be made to draw in the seabirds through the use of a solar-powered, weatherproof sound system that broadcasts recorded bird calls as well as the use of life like-decoy birds that were made by the same New Zealand company that created props for “The Lord of the Rings” movies. The enclosures will be kept in place indefinitely and biologists will monitor the project for the next 20 years.

For more information and photos of the enclosures click here.

Some Good News for Atlantic Puffins

Atlantic Puffins have once again arrived in Maine for the breeding season, and, unlike last year, are finding plenty of food for their chicks.  Last year, there was a shortage of hake and herring that resulted in the deaths of many puffin chicks, but this year it seems like there is enough food.  However, researchers are still concerned.  The number of puffins on the islands of Maticinus Rock and Seal Island has decreased by a third, even though these two islands are closely monitored by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Audubon Society.

Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic Puffins numbers are doing better this year. Photo: USFWS.

Atlantic puffins are beautiful birds with a unique lifestyle.  Their bills are brightly colored, with a mix of reddish stripes and yellow spots.  They are a diving bird, and will dive down as far as 200 feet below the surface in search of food.  Like penguins, they use their wings to “fly” under the water for 20-30 seconds and can carry several fish at a time due to the sharp, tooth-like structures on the roof of their mouths.  These birds are becoming a major tourist attraction in the Gulf of Maine, but a hundred years ago the population was nearly wiped out as people hunted them for their eggs, meat, and feathers.

Research suggests that puffins are more sensitive to environmental changes than other seabirds because they are less able to adapt.  While stopping their decline is difficult, this sensitivity can help scientists study the changes in ocean climate.

Learn more about this research here.

Choosing environmentally friendly fireworks

As July 4th approaches, many people are looking forward to celebrating with fireworks. When purchasing fireworks, it’s important to consider the impact on the environment. It is important to always clean up the debris left behind by fireworks. Many fireworks leave behind plastic pieces that can be mistaken as food by wildlife. Luckily you can purchase cardboard and paper options that are less harmful. You may want to reconsider Saturn Missile Battery fireworks, or any fireworks with the word “battery” in the name, as these contain numerous small plastic tubes that are difficult to clean up or see. If your fireworks do contain plastic pieces such as caps, wings, or bases, be sure you know how to identify them during the clean up process to avoid any harmful impact on wildlife. For more info, visit www.plasticsinfireworks.org or like “Environmentally Friendly Fireworks” on Facebook!

Plastics from fireworks

Plastics left behind from fireworks. Photo from Environmentally Friendly Fireworks

Shipping Accident Hotspots Identified


Cargo ship in Seattle harbor. Photo from Sheila Sund (flickr)

Cargo ship in Seattle harbor. Photo from Sheila Sund (flickr)

Some of the most iconic oceans are at the highest risk of shipping accidents, including the South China Sea, the East Indies, the East Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the British Isles and the North Sea.

“Since 1999 there have been 293 shipping accidents in the South China Sea and east Indies, home of the Coral Triangle and 76 per cent of the world’s coral species.” stated Dr Simon Walmsley, Marine Manger, WWF International. “As recently as April this year we`ve seen a Chinese fishing boat run aground on a protected coral reef in the Philippines that had already been damaged by a US Navy ship in January.”

What does this mean for the environment? This depends on what exactly each ship is carrying, and how much is being carried. Another detrimental incident occurred when the Prestige oil tanker sunk in 2002, spilling 70,000 tonnes of oil in the Atlantic Ocean off the Spanish coast. This kind of loss can result not only effected the environment, it also made an economic loss of about €8.

Even though it may be obvious that spills like this can make a huge impact, even small scale accidents can still alter the environment. This is especially true for sensitive areas like corals reefs or seabird colonies.

Additionally, climate changes are affecting wind and current patterns, creating a higher risk that ships may flounder, or sink due to rough weather. This, along with an expanding global fleet, only increases the likelihood of more severe accidents to occur.

Over 40% of wrecked vessels are cargo ships. This is often because they are operating short, opportunistic, and unset routes.

Exposing irresponsible owners and country regulations will help motivate people to become more cautious and decrease the number of accidents. “We really want to see the shipping industry promote greater owner and operator responsibility and encourage owners to register with better flag states, the country which a vessel is registered to.”

Read More: Here

Protecting an Endangered Seabird–with Vomit?

A cool tactic is being employed to help protect the marbled murrelet, a seabird with a very unique breeding strategy.  Although they are seabirds, marbled murrelets breed in old-growth redwood forests up and down the west coast.  After laying a single egg, the murrelet parents will fly as much as 50 miles from the nest to the sea and back to bring food. Because they rely on these old-growth redwood forests to breed, their numbers are down 90 percent from their 19th-century numbers.  Historically, deforestation, fishing, and pollution have been the bulk of the problem, but nowadays, with the redwoods protected by national parks, the threat comes from other sources.

An adult marbled murrelet. About the size of a robin, they nest in California’s old-growth redwoods. Photo from USFWS.

The marbled murrelet population in central California is at the most risk, and this is largely due to the increase of Steller’s jays. These jays will steal the eggs and eat them, and have been responsible for the loss of up to 80 percent of each year’s brood. Because of this egg-stealing, the central California population of murrelets is threatened with extinction within the next hundred years.

The jays are found throughout the west, but have been booming in redwood forests because of the trash and food debris left over in campgrounds. These omnivorous birds will then find and eat murrelet eggs once they have established themselves in the redwoods. Because the jays are very smart and have very good memories, they will return to the same place multiple times looking for food. This is bad news for the murrelets, who use the same nesting sites year after year. Killing jays is not an option, because they are a natural part of the ecosystem. Instead, park biologists have come up with a smart way to deter the jays from eating murrelet eggs.

Although training wild animals might seem weird, in this case it is exactly what is being done.  The jays are being trained to associate murrelet eggs with vomiting.  Chicken eggs are painted to look like murrelet eggs and inoculated with carbachol, an odorless, tasteless chemical that induces vomiting.

These eggs are then fed to the jays, who vomit within five minutes of eating them, in order to teach the jays to avoid that particular kind of egg.  So far, the testing phases of this unusual method of control have been very successful, reducing egg-stealing by 37 to 70 percent.  This reduction is enough to keep the murrelets at a sustainable population size and decrease their chance of extinction in the next hundred years from 96 to 5 percent.

Stellar Jay populations are booming as they take advantage of crumbs and trash left behind by humans. Photo from USFWS.

There are a number of reasons why this program is so successful.  First of all, jays are smart, long-lived, and have long memories, so once they learn that the distinctive murrelet egg coloration means vomiting, they will avoid them. Second, Steller’s jays are highly territorial, so untrained jays will stay away. Finally, murrelet eggs look like nothing else found in a redwood forest, so the jays are unlikely to confuse them.



While this innovative program is a very good start, the sheer number of Steller’s jays is still an issue. As parks open up more and more space to humans, the population of jays will only increase.  Opportunistic animals like jays thrive in areas where humans leave trash and crumbs. Therefore, a number of parks are encouraging visitors to “keep it crumb-free” in an effort to educate the populace about the dangers of feeding wildlife. So the next time you’re camping in central California, remember the marbled murrelets are depending on you. Dispose of your trash correctly, clean up after yourself, and above all, don’t feed the jays.

Click here to read more about this unique project.