The Beacon

Blog Tags: Seabirds

Creature Feature: Magnificent Frigatebird

Yes, that’s a bird, and yes, it’s supposed to look like that. (Photo: Mark Vance)

Magnificent frigatebirds aren’t the beauty queens of the bird world, but they do get points for bold style. These seabirds have a seven foot wingspan and an inflatable, bright-red throat sac under their bills that they used in elaborate courtship displays. Only the males have these sacs—female frigatebirds have a non-inflatable white neck, making them the only seabird species where the males and females look very different.


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More Than 600 Seabirds and Penguins Found Dead

600 guaynay cormorants and penguins like this one were discovered dead on the beaches of northern Chile. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Last month, in the Coquimbo region of northern Chile, more than 600 guanay cormorants and penguins were found dead on the beaches. The citizen control that monitors the area reported that on May 10, ten fishing boats were seen approaching the beach opposite the Los Choros ravine. Two days later, the Movement in Defense of the Environment (MODEMA) reports, the first dead beached birds were discovered – boobies, Yeco ducks, pelicans, and Humboldt penguins among them. The National Fisheries Service has confirmed the death of these species on-site, and the Chilean Navy is inspecting vessels there.

The question then becomes – what caused this mass death of birds, and are these fishing boats responsible?


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Tuna Still Feeling the Effects of Fukushima

Bluefin tuna

Bluefin tuna are carrying radiation from Japan to California. ©Oceana/Keith Ellenbogen

It might seem straight out of science fiction, but this story is real – radioactive tuna could be swimming in an ocean near you.

new study found that after last spring’s Fukushima nuclear accident, Pacific Bluefin tuna caught off of San Diego appear to have been contaminated by radioactive materials from last spring’s nuclear accident in Japan.

The March 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami led to the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant in central Japan. Even now, the only way to enter the zone 20 kilometers around the plant is with special government permission. After the accident, tests showed that concentrations of radioactive Cesium in coastal waters increased up to 10,000-fold.

This study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found the same radioactive Cesium in 15 Bluefin tuna specimens caught outside of San Diego. The fish tested showed a 10-fold increase from normal Cesium concentrations, well below the safety limit established by Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishes.

Bluefin are a highly migratory species – they spawn in the West Pacific near Japan, then, once they have matured, may travel more than 9,000 miles to the East Pacific and the California coast. They’re such strong swimmers that the trip only takes a few months.

During the course of this trip, the radioactive concentration fell as the fish grew and the Cesium decayed. If they had tested tuna from Japan, the radiation would be expected to be up to 15 times more concentrated, according to Daniel Madigan, Zofia Baumann, and Nicholas Fisher, the co-authors of the study.

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch already lists bluefin as a species to avoid due to severe overfishing and high mercury levels. They’re highly valued as sushi fish, which has led to a steep decline in their populations in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Bluefin tuna are slow to mature, and are often caught before they have a chance to reproduce. Oceana is currently working to protect bluefin tuna from overfishing.


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Thursday Trivia: Puffins

puffin photo

An Atlantic puffin. © Oceana/Concha Martinez

Puffins are curious and charismatic birds that live in the North Atlantic ocean, where their orange beaks and feet make for a colorful sight.

Atlantic puffins can swim as well as fly. Like a plane taxiing for take-off, a puffin runs along the surface of the water to gather speed for flight.

Puffins spend the summer in clifftop colonies and they winter at sea. Once a year, the puffins moult, and are left temporarily flightless.

Each year, Atlantic puffins return to breeding grounds, where they perform rituals like bill-knocking and marching in front of burrows. Burrows are sometimes re-used between seasons. Each pair of Atlantic puffins incubates a single egg, and when the chick hatches, they bring it small whole fish, which they are able to carry by using their tongues to hold the fish to the roof of the beak. Chicks are fed for six weeks, then abandoned; after several days the chicks leave to hunt for themselves.

Atlantic puffins currently have large and fairly healthy populations. However, they have been targeted by human hunting for meat and feathers, and they are also vulnerable to attacks by gulls, rats, cats, dogs and foxes. One of the most important risks they face is overfishing of species like sand eel and capelin, which Atlantic puffins rely on for food. Puffins are also vulnerable to the effects of oil spills.


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New Report: Small Fish in Big Trouble

bryde's whale.

A bryde's whale enjoys a meal. © Randy Morse  www.GoldenStateImages.com

Did you know that the brown pelican relies on northern anchovy for food? Or that the endangered blue whale feeds exclusively on tiny krill at rates of up to 4,000 pounds per day? Or that a record number of young sea lions were stranded on California beaches last year because they didn’t have enough small fish to eat?

Individually they don’t look like much, but small fish and invertebrates called “forage species” school up to form massive underwater bait balls.

These forage fish are the foundation of the marine food web and provide food for nearly everything else higher up the food ladder. Forage species, such as Pacific herring, Pacific sardine, anchovy, smelts, squid and krill are the critical prey for whales, dolphins, sea lions, many types of fish, and millions of seabirds.

Our new report, “Forage Fish: Feeding the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem,” shows the value of forage fish for fisheries and wildlife – and demonstrates that it’s high time that our fisheries managers recognize their big impact in the ocean.

How many forage fish are needed to feed our ocean’s wildlife and preserve the benefits forage species provide us? That is the question we are asking managers to answer and take into account when setting catch quotas. 

As consumers we enjoy forage fish without even realizing it. Activities, such as whale watching, enjoying fresh wild salmon for dinner, and going sport fishing, are all possible because those top predators survive on forage fish. And they are important for the economy, too -- tourism, recreation activities, and fishing brought in over $23 billion in GDP to California, Oregon, and Washington combined in 2004 alone.

Oceana is the first conservation group to assess the current status of Pacific forage fish. Our new report details the role of forage species in the California Current marine ecosystem, the threats to forage species populations, and the flawed management structures currently in place. The report documents the large gaps in stock information and show the fisheries mismanagement taking place at multiple levels of state, federal and international government.

Providing and maintaining a healthy, sustainable ocean ecosystem does not mean shutting down existing fisheries—but it does call for change. The challenge is to extend the principles in our new report to create a new way of managing our resources that goes beyond single-species management, and considers the role of forage species within the ecosystem as a whole.

By highlighting the colossal importance of these tiny forage species, Oceana aims to ensure a healthy, diverse, productive, and resilient California Current marine ecosystem. Be sure to check out the full report and let us know what you think!


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Where Are They Now?: Ocean Hero Jay Holcomb

Jay Holcomb with a pelican patient.

We are now accepting nominations for our third annual Ocean Heroes Contest! Throughout the nomination period, which ends April 27, I’ll be featuring a few of the past winners and finalists to get you inspired. Last week I updated you on last year’s Junior Ocean Heroes, the Shark Finatics. Today we’re catching up with the 2010 Adult Ocean Hero, Jay Holcomb.

Jay Holcomb garnered the most votes in the Adult category last year for his quarter-century of work rehabilitating oiled seabirds around the world with the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC). In fact, when we announced his big win, Jay was on the Gulf Coast leading the effort to clean up oiled birds from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Since then, the organization has re-grouped. They are still rescuing birds on a daily basis from their home base in California, but Jay’s role has changed. He has stepped down as executive director and colleague Paul Kelway has stepped up. Jay is now the Director Emeritus, which gives him more time to focus on his passion: saving birds.


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