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Research Technical Report

Where the Wild Things Are: Predicting Hotspots of Seabird Aggregations in the California Current System

Nur, N., J. Jahncke, M.P. Herzog, J. Howar, K.D. Hyrenbach, J.E. Zamon, D.G. Ainley, J.A. Wiens, K. Morgan, L.T. Ballance, and D. Stralberg (September 2011)

Ecological Applications 21:2241-2257


Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) provide an important tool for conservation of marine ecosystems. To be most effective, these areas should be strategically located in a manner that supports ecosystem function. To inform marine spatial planning and support strategic establishment of MPAs within the California Current System, we identified areas predicted to support multispecies aggregations of seabirds ("hotspots"). We developed habitat-association models for 16 species using information from at-sea observations collected over an 11-year period (1997-2008), bathymetric data, and remotely sensed oceanographic data for an area from north of Vancouver Island, Canada, to the USA/Mexico border and seaward 600 km from the coast. This approach enabled us to predict distribution and abundance of seabirds even in areas of few or no surveys. We developed single-species predictive models using a machine-learning algorithm: bagged decision trees. Single-species predictions were then combined to identify potential hotspots of seabird aggregation, using three criteria: (1) overall abundance among species, (2) importance of specific areas ("core areas") to individual species, and (3) predicted persistence of hotspots across years. Model predictions were applied to the entire California Current for four seasons (represented by February, May, July, and October) in each of 11 years. Overall, bathymetric variables were often important predictive variables, whereas oceanographic variables derived from remotely sensed data were generally less important. Predicted hotspots often aligned with currently protected areas (e.g., National Marine Sanctuaries), but we also identified potential hotspots in Northern California/Southern Oregon (from Cape Mendocino to Heceta Bank), Southern California (adjacent to the Channel Islands), and adjacent to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, that are not currently included in protected areas. Prioritization and identification of multispecies hotspots will depend on which group of species is of highest management priority. Modeling hotspots at a broad spatial scale can contribute to MPA site selection, particularly if complemented by fine-scale information for focal areas.