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    Seabirds and waterfowl

    Reliable long-term data on abundance and reproductive success of appropriate species can be one of the best indications of what is happening in the broader ecosystem as well as providing important information for questions of anthropogenic impact. In remote areas such as the Bering Sea, biological data collection programs are often focused primarily on species occurring during the summer, resulting in a substantial information gap. A well-designed community based ecological monitoring program can address this problem.

    In 2008 the Tribal Government of St. Paul Island (TGSPI) Ecosystem Conservation Office (ECO) initiated the Seaduck and Gull Survey program (SDGS) with funding from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Tribal Wildlife Grant (TWG) program. The SDGS project focused on three clearly defined resource benefits important to management, identified as high priorities of the USFWS Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Bering Sea Unit, and that fit well with the capabilities and infrastructure of the TGSPI ECO: (1) trend surveys of winter seaducks, (2) trend surveys of gulls, and (3) surveys of beachcast (dead) birds. Our immediate goal was to build the necessary infrastructure to begin monitoring while our ultimate goal is to establish a long-term high quality monitoring program. The key to this effort was the development and implementation of clearly defined monitoring protocols used to establish baselines and trends in the high priority focal species. Our efforts were very successful and the ECO has continued collecting these data as a regular part of their annual monitoring program.

    The specific species upon which our efforts are focused are important for either subsistence and sport hunting (seaducks), their negative impact on important species (gulls), or as broader indicators of general ecosystem health (beachcast birds). The work plan is designed to fit within the existing infrastructure of ECO’s Island Sentinel Program and data are entered and archived in the BeringWatch online database. The SDGS program established monitoring protocols for seaducks and gull counts. Seaduck counts focus primarily on eiders (Somateria spp.), harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus), long-tailed ducks (Clangula hyemalis), and white-winged scoters (Melanitta fusca) although data on other species are also collected. Gull counts focus on glaucous-winged gulls (Larus glaucescens), the most prevalent of the three locally occurring gull species. Data collection is focused on the winter months including late fall and early spring (November-May) on St. Paul Island Alaska, and as much as possible, follows previous USFWS survey methodology. Weekly surveys were conducted at a total of 26 observation sites in 2009 and increased to 36 in 2010, representing nine island regions that are surveyed whenever weather conditions allow access to the sites. During periods of excessive snow, access to some regions is restricted.

    The success of the SDGS surveys clearly demonstrates that community-based ecological data collection is an efficient and cost effective methodology with the appropriate design, preparation and training of personnel. The results of the first two seasons of seaduck and gull data show two main results. First, the peak in annual abundance often did not occur at the time of year when the previous counts were conducted (March). Second, although there was substantial intra-annual variation, the annual trends were mostly similar between years. The results of the gull data show two additional results. First, gull concentrations were mostly associated with the village area and south shore – likely in association with dockside and outfall fish offal. Second, gulls were not typically associated with the landfill.

    Throughout the project we have nurtured active partnerships with the Regional Office of the USFWS and the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge who have maintained a keen interest in the resulting data, as well as the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) at the University of Washington. The SDGS provides a set of baseline species counts and geographic distribution during winter months on St. Paul Island, Alaska. Of particular note is the cost effectiveness of using an existing locally based infrastructure to collect valuable and logistically difficult data, and of the long-term local capacity building that has resulted directly from this project. The later is viewed as an important step towards developing self-sufficiency in resource management. We believe that the data produced from this project will facilitate the development of local ordinances and enforcement as well as more general management needs such as development of a management plan. Now that the program is operating successfully on St. Paul Island, our two main goals for the future are to continue data collection in direct consultation with the USFWS regional office, and to transfer the methodology to other Bering Sea communities as part of an ongoing effort to build ties with local tribes.

    Download the final report to the USFWS Tribal Wildlife Grant Program: Establishing Long-Term Trends of Winter Seaducks and Gulls.