Isles of Shoals Seabird Study

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Erik Chapman N.H. Sea Grant Principal Investigator
Julie Ellis Tufts University Associate Investigator
Daniel Hayward Terns LLC Associate Investigator

Students Involved:

Thomas Staley University of New Hampshire
2014 Accomplishments
N.H. seabird monitoring research leads to funding for two additional studies of common and roseate terns
The Isles of Shoals, located just off the coast of N.H. and Maine, are host to seabird breeding colonies. Seabirds, including gulls and terns, serve as indicators of marine ecosystem structure and function, and could provide a signal for ecosystem adjustment to climate change or fishing activities. With funding provided by a N.H. Sea Grant development grant, researchers observed seabird behaviors and collected data on their diets and breeding activity and success at the Isles of Shoals and Lunging Island. In 2014, this research directly led to the funding of two additional projects with N.H. Fish and Game to explore the reproductive energetics of common and roseate terns using two methods of tracking foraging behavior. These new studies will provide researchers and resource managers with a more robust understanding of seabird ecology off the coast of N.H.

N.H. Sea Grant researchers hold meetings to discuss collaborative efforts to study N.H. seabird ecology
The ecological monitoring of seabirds on the Isles of Shoals offers researchers the opportunity to learn more about marine ecosystem structure and function. However, the various monitoring efforts have previously lacked coordination with one another. In 2014, scientists held three meetings to discuss complementary seabird research opportunities and identify research priorities for the Isles of Shoals region. This collaborative approach to seabird ecology research will provide a more robust dataset and offer an improved understanding of seabird ecology and thus marine ecological conditions and changes near the Isles of Shoals. 
Long-term data sets generated by the study of seabird reproductive biology (and diet) have provided insights into ecosystem structure and function that are often not available through traditional biological oceanographic survey methods. This is because seabirds are continually ‘sampling’ their environment; thus they integrate ecosystem conditions over a broad space and time.  
These advantages have led to seabird and other top predator studies playing a prominent role in research efforts designed to track changes in the marine ecosystem in response to factors such as climate change and fishing pressure. One example is the Palmer Station Antarctica Long Term Ecological Research Program. Shifting abundances and distributions of prey species has been signaled by changes in diet and reproductive success patterns from seabird studies (Ducklow et al. Marine ecosystems: The West Antarctic Peninsula, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, 2007). Observed changes in diet and the timing of reproductive effort among seabirds have also been associated with changes in large scale oceanography (Carscadden et al. Trophic relationships among capelin and seabirds in a changing ecosystem, Ices Journal of Marine Science, 2002) in the Northwest Atlantic. Overall, seabird studies have a lengthy history of signaling marine ecosystem changes in response to fisheries impacts and climate change (Einoder, A review of the use of seabirds as indicators in fisheries and ecosystem management, 2009). As such, seabird studies present an important opportunity to contribute to our understanding of ecosystem changes that directly affect marine resources, including commercial fisheries.
Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Biodiversity Research Institute are exploring developing a strategic plan for the Gulf of Maine Integrated Research Program (GOMIERP Working Group 2012, Gulf of Maine Integrated Research Program – DRAFT Strategic Plan. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 23pp). This program is being designed based on the Bering Sea & Aleutian Islands Integrated Ecosystem Research Program (BEST-BSIERP: and the Gulf of Alaska Integrated Research Program (GOAIERP; — programs established to integrate ongoing research programs to provide an ecosystem scale, long-term study that will provide information on the response of the marine ecosystem to natural and anthropogenic effects, such as fishing pressure and climate change. A key part of this program will be seabird and other top-predator studies. As a result, this is an important time to establish a potential long-term ecosystem monitoring site at the Isles of Shoals. 
The Isles of Shoals support several breeding seabird species with known interactions with regional commercial fisheries. For example, double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus), common terns (Sterna hirundo), roseate terns (Sterna dougallii), greater black-backed gulls (Larus marinus), and herring gulls (Larus argentatus) feed in varying proportions on commercially important fish species (e.g. silver hake/whiting [Merluccius bilinearis], herring spp, winter flounder [Pseudopleuronectes americanus]). Currently, continuous programs that study the reproductive biology and diets of common terns, roseate terns and both gull species have been underway since the mid 1990s. However, these programs are not integrated and there is currently no effort to study double-crested cormorants on the islands. 
I propose to use the summer of 2012 to work with researchers who are currently studying seabirds on the Isles of Shoals to explore the feasibility and potential of integrating and expanding seabird studies in a manner that would be consistent with standards and protocols used within other projects that are currently a part of the emerging GOMIERP program. The idea of creating an integrated network of seabird researchers at the Isles of Shoals has been met with a great deal of support and excitement from Dr. Julie Ellis (Tufts University, studying gulls at Isles of Shoals), Dan Hayward (Terns LLC, studying common and roseate terns) and Linda Welch (Wildlife Biologist, Maine Coastal Islands NWR, and leader of GOMIERP).    
During this year, we will provide the following deliverables:
1.     Develop a protocol for providing diet samples of greater black-backed and herring gulls at the Isles of Shoals.
2.     Assess and modify current protocols for visually determining diets of common terns at the Isles of Shoals.
3.     Explore the feasibility for collecting pellets from double-crested cormorants at the Isles of Shoals. Collect initial data.
4.     Produce a document providing an overview of seabirds at the Isles of Shoals and their interactions with the marine ecosystem and commercial fisheries.
5.     Produce a detailed map of all existing seabird colonies at the Isles of Shoals.
6.     Explore the possibility of collecting at-sea survey data from frequently run transits around the Isles of Shoals (e.g. Shoals Marine Lab supply and personnel transport runs).
7.     Produce an overview of a proposed integrated long-term seabird study that will include the diet sample protocols discussed above and will monitor breeding colonies at the Isles of Shoals.