, Volume 88, Issue 1-3, pp 153-181

Seabirds as Indicators of Changes in Marine Ecosystems: Ecological Monitoring on Machias Seal Island

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Abstract

Changes in marine ecosystems can be manifested in many different ways, on different temporal and spatial scales. Seabirds are top consumers in marine foodwebs and offer opportunities to detect and assess the biological effects of changes in physical parameters (sea-surface temperature [SST], salinity, depth of thermocline etc.) of the marine ecosystem. We compare six-eight years' of data on the biology (diet, and breeding success) of four species of seabird (arctic tern Sterna paradisaeaand common tern S. hirundo, which feed at the sea surface; and Atlantic puffin Fratercula arctica and razorbill Alca torda, which dive 30–60 m for their prey) breeding on Machias Seal Island (MSI) in the Bay of Fundy with both our own meteorological and oceanographic measurements, and with standard measurements from conventional sources. These are compared with fisheries data on changes in the main prey of all the seabirds concerned (juvenile or ‘0-group’ herring Clupea harengus) which are the most direct link between the seabirds and the physical properties of the marine system. We explore relationships between seabird productivity and diet, and other aspects of both herring biology (larval surveys, and fat content) and oceanography (SST data from the island, and remotely sensed data from the entrance to the Bay of Fundy). Timing of laying by puffins followed SST variation at neither the local (MSI) nor regional scales, but at the scale of the North Atlantic, following the trend of populations breeding off northern Norway. The proportion of herring in the diet of terns over 6 years varied inversely with herring larval abundance the previous fall; this relationship was not statistically significant in the puffin and razorbill. A major new finding is the considerable (∼50%) inter-annual variation in the energy density (fat content) of juvenile herring that are the main seabird prey; breeding success of both species of tern varied in parallel with the energy density of juvenile herring in the diet until the last two years of the study, when sandlance (Ammodytes sp.) and euphausid shrimp predominated in the diet. Our long-term research approach combines traditional population monitoring (of numbers of breeding birds) with demographic, behavioural and environmental monitoring, to provide new understanding of the marine ecosystem as well as of seabirds.