This is a post by Jennifer Boyce of the NOAA Restoration Center.
On the remote, windswept islands of British Columbia, Canada, a unique species of seabird, the Ancient Murrelet, nests in burrows among tree roots, logs, and rock crevices set in the breathtaking Haida Gwaii region. Unfortunately for this threatened relative of the puffin, however, mysterious oil spills in California were coating and killing the murrelet and thousands of other seabirds from at least the 1990s through 2002.
This devastation to the rare murrelet, which migrates south to California in the winter, and to other threatened and endangered species such as sea otters and snowy plovers went on for years. Finally in 2002, U.S. federal and state officials identified the sunken oil tanker Jacob Luckenbach (wrecked in 1953) as the culprit and the source of several mystery oil spills cropping up during winter storms off the coast of California.
The owners of the vessel no longer exist, but the U.S. government created the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, managed by the U.S. Coast Guard, to provide cleanup operations and support for restoration projects resulting from these kinds of oil spills. The same year, the Coast Guard used the Trust Fund to remove oil from the Luckenbach and seal it from future leaks.
To make up for the damage to wildlife from the oil, a trustee council that includes NOAA summarized the injuries to natural resources and, as a result of the assessment, received $22.7 million toward restoration projects for the impacted seabirds and otters. The money came from the National Pollution Fund Center.
As a result, an innovative partnership has sprung up between nonprofits, governments, state and federal agencies, and foundations to restore critical breeding habitat—located in Canada’s Haida Gwaii region—for colonies of the Ancient Murrelet. However, that offers its own challenges.
Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site are home to many of the Haida Gwaii region’s 1.5 million nesting seabirds. A marine archipelago, the region is renowned for its rugged coastline, temperate rainforests, and distinct flora and fauna, which evolved through 14,000 years of isolation from the mainland. It is so disproportionately rich in rare and unique species that it is often referred to as the “Galapagos of the North.”
Yet Gwaii Haanas’s biodiversity is threatened by a range of biological, climate, and human-induced impacts. One of the most significant is from introduced species. Rats, first introduced to Haida Gwaii via maritime shipping in the late 1700s, have been found on at least 18 islands throughout the archipelago.
Because island systems have been isolated for long periods of time, they are especially vulnerable to the impacts of introduced species because native island species often lack the evolutionary defenses to deal with the newcomers. Rats have devastating effects on populations of nesting seabirds, forest songbirds, and native small mammals. Recent research shows that rats can also affect invertebrate populations, and as a consequence, unleash a cascade of far-reaching effects in ecosystems, such as changes to soil fertility and plant composition. With funds from the Luckenbach settlement and Parks Canada and the Haida Nation, a partnership has been created to eradicate rats on the islands in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site in the hopes of restoring seabird populations.
In September of this year, I was fortunate enough to visit this stunningly beautiful and culturally rich region to witness the restoration project as the NOAA representative on the Luckenbach Trustee Council. Traveling with Parks Canada, Island Conservation, and Coastal Conservation (the latter two are the non-profits implementing the on-ground efforts), we were able to visit the islands kicking off the rat eradication project.
Strategically placed bait stations have been situated throughout each island and armed with the pesticide brodifacoum. Infrared cameras capture any nocturnal visitors to the stations and ensure that only rats can access the bait. Initial signs are positive. These bait stations will be monitored for the next two years to confirm that all rats have been removed before the islands can be declared officially rat-free.
In addition, scientists will use automated acoustic listening devices to measure seabird populations on affected islands, studying the frequency and distribution of seabird calls and determining what bird species are present. Hopefully in the years to come, these devices will record both the return of the Ancient Murrelet to its historic numbers—and the sound of success.
Jennifer Boyce works for the NOAA Restoration Center, based in Long Beach, California. Jennifer serves as the NOAA trustee on several oil spill restoration Trustee Councils throughout California and is the Program Manager for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program.