Data gathered by the Beach COMBERS survey teams over the past year are influencing resource management in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and far beyond. That group's discovery of large numbers of dead Common Murres along Sanctuary beaches has led to successful new regional partnerships and new research involving the halibut gill net industry, Common Murre health, and sea otter recovery.
Beach COMBERS are volunteers who regularly survey Sanctuary beaches, gathering information on any dead birds and marine mammals they encounter. In August and September 1997 volunteers encountered high counts of dead Common Murres in the southern section of Monterey Bay. Local researchers contacted the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in La Jolla and learned that the gill net fishery one hypothesized cause for the increased mortality in southern Monterey Bay has increased dramatically in this area in the last few years. (Gill nets are stationary walls of anchored netting; the netting entangles the fish or captures them by the gills.)
"Karin Forney, from the NMFS office in La Jolla, became interested in Beach COMBER data on sea bird and marine mammal mortality," explains Sanctuary Research Coordinator Andrew DeVogelaere. "As a result she is now spending part of her time working in the Sanctuary office." Forney, who works in the NMFS program responsible for assessing marine mammal mortality from fishing activity, began to research the gill net industry's history in this area.
From data gathered as part of gill net observer programs in the Monterey Bay region in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Forney evaluated local patterns of bycatch (the incidental capture of non-target species). High bycatch of seabirds and marine mammals in shallow waters during the 1980s caused gill net fishing to be restricted to waters deeper than 55 meters off Central California in 1991. In 1994 gill net fishing was also banned at any depth within 5.5 kilometers of the Southern California coast (not including the islands). Some local observers speculate that the 1994 ban may have sent those fishers up the coast to the Monterey Bay area, increasing gill net fishing in this region.
Now, two trained observers travel on fishing vessels and record the bycatch. The program is scheduled to continue for one or two years.
"What is remarkable about this process is the wide-ranging resource management processes that are being affected by this one discovery," says DeVogelaere. "It has also created a good partnership between the Sanctuary, the Beach COMBERS, NMFS, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML), and the DFG Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz.
"Dr. Jim Harvey and his students at MLML are conducting necropsies on some of the carcasses from the gill nets, in coordination with the DFG facility, to compare the health of those individuals with the health of animals Beach COMBERS find. "Currently, if we find a bird on the beach and it has parasites, we don't know if the parasites killed it or if it simply had parasites," explains Scott Benson, Volunteer Coordinator and Data Manager for the Beach COMBERS. "These necropsies will help us see what normally healthy birds look like." Results from the necropsies may also show that gill nets are not a factor in the birds' mortality increases.
A further offshoot of the Beach COMBERS discovery and Forney's research relates to the sea otter, a threatened species whose range includes Sanctuary waters. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken a strong interest in this research, and has now identified the gill net fishery along with other sources as a potential cause for sea otter decline. The gill net observer program data will be invaluable in assessing the extent to which gill nets may be affecting sea otters in Monterey Bay.
"This is why the Sanctuary works in partnership with other groups, volunteers, and agencies and encourages innovative research programs," says DeVogelaere. "Here we have a perfect example of the benefits that come from good research and collaboration."
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Last modified on: August 6,