Tracking seabirds to identify ecologically important and high risk marine areas in the western North Atlantic
Protection of the marine environment lags far behind that of terrestrial domains. To help ameliorate this circumstance, top predators are being tracked to identify important ocean habitats, biodiversity hotspots and high risk areas and to assess effects of anthropogenic developments, pollution and environmental perturbations. We used GPS, Global Location Sensors (GLSs) and satellite platform terminal transmitters (PTTs) to track foraging and migrating thick-billed and common murres and northern gannets along with vessel surveys to identify potential Marine Protected Areas, to assess risk and to evaluate the consequences of the recent Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Multi-year persistent sites of forage fishes generated multi-species predator aggregations. Species- and colony-specific winter inshore and offshore distributions of murres are associated with risks of climate change (ice), by-catch in fishing gear, hunting and oil extraction. Some thick-billed murres wintered in oceanic areas beyond the continental slope, and an area of high biological diversity was identified west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that, owing to its location beyond national jurisdictions, presents unique challenges for protection. Migration research indicated a substantial proportion of the North American gannet population wintering in the Gulf of Mexico near the Deepwater Horizon pollution area. Northern gannets incurred the highest incidence of oiling/recoveries and were the third-most oiled avian species; distributions and exit dates suggest that sub-adult birds suffered much, likely most, of this mortality. Environmental risk is being assessed by tracking combined with stable isotope and blood assays to probe trophic interactions, habitat relationships and to identify and protect biologically significant marine areas.