The risk of rodent introductions from shipwrecks to seabirds on Aleutian and Bering Sea islands

Abstract

Accidental introductions of rodents present one of the greatest threats to indigenous island biota, especially seabirds. On uninhabited remote islands, such introductions are likely to come from shipwrecks. Here we use a comprehensive database of shipwrecks in Western Alaska to model the frequency of shipwrecks per Aleutian and Bering Sea island, taken as a proxy for the threat of rodent introductions, using physical variables, and the intensity of nearby fishing traffic and activity as predictors. Using data spanning from 1950 to 2013, we found that shipwrecks were particularly common in the 1980s to early 2000s, with a major peak in wrecks during the late 1980s. Amount of fishing activity within 5 km of an island was the strongest predictor of shipwrecks, followed by the strength of tidal currents and density of large-vessel traffic. Islands with the highest frequency of shipwrecks are all in the eastern Aleutians, including Unimak, Unalaska, and Akun Islands. By contrast, the largest seabird colonies are in the western Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, including Buldir, Kiska, and Saint George islands. Multiplying the frequency of a shipwreck by the number of seabirds breeding per island provides a measure of risk. The risk of rodent introductions from shipwrecks to seabirds was then greatest for Saint George (Bering Sea), Buldir (Western Aleutians) and Saint Matthew islands (Bering Sea). Keeping these high-risk islands rodent free would maintain their high a conservation value. Most islands with a high predicted frequency of shipwrecks already have established rodent populations and therefore few remaining seabirds. Of those islands with established rodent populations, Attu and Kiska Islands would make suitable targets for eradication, given their relatively low expected frequency of shipwrecks for their size. Further improvements in rat prevention on vessels and shipping safety would benefit the economy, human health and safety, and to the long-term conservation of island ecosystems.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to acknowledge the help of numerous people that made this work possible. A. Sowls has been a pioneer in raising awareness and introducing measures for preventing rodent introductions to Alaskan islands. We’d like to thank S. Ebbert for sharing his unparalleled knowledge of invasive species in the Aleutian Archipelago. Shannon Fitzgerald helped with providing and interpreting the fisheries observer data. We are most grateful to D. Burn for his help with acquiring data sets. J. Williams, N. Rojek, M. Romano and H. Renner helped with many long discussions, suggestions, and sharing their intimate knowledge of the Alaska Maritime NWR. K. Kuletz has been instrumental, getting this project started and raising necessary funds. Comments by S. Kendall and M. Smith and two anonymous reviewers improved this manuscript. Thanks to NMFS Science and Technology’s economics program and the spatial economics toolbox for fisheries (FishSET) project for supporting JW’s work on the project. The Science Support Partnership of USGS and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the USGS Invasive Species Program, and the Aleutian and Bering Sea Islands Landscape Conservation Cooperative supported this work. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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Correspondence to Martin Renner.

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Renner, M., Nelson, E., Watson, J. et al. The risk of rodent introductions from shipwrecks to seabirds on Aleutian and Bering Sea islands. Biol Invasions 20, 2679–2690 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-018-1726-z

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Keywords

  • Invasive species
  • Island conservation
  • Shipping traffic