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The seabird steward: A Q&A with Kevin Powers

By Alexander Dacy

October 2017

kevin powers
Kevin Powers is the 2017 National Marine Sanctuary Foundation Volunteer of the Year. Photo: Tasia Blough/NOAA

Earlier this year, Kevin Powers was named the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation’s Volunteer of the Year for his work at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts. The award highlights the important role volunteers play in the National Marine Sanctuary System. The national awardee is selected from nominees from each marine sanctuary.

Powers is an internationally-recognized seabird researcher whose groundbreaking 1982 research explained the distribution, abundance, and ecological role of marine birds on the continental shelf of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. His research informed Massachusetts Representative Gerry Studds’ successful efforts to nominate Stellwagen Bank for sanctuary designation.

After his work in field biology, Powers became a computer engineer until his retirement. He then returned to Stellwagen Bank in 2013 to volunteer with the sanctuary’s Seabird Stewards citizen science program and to become a member of the sanctuary’s advisory council. Powers also works with the sanctuary’s whale tagging, sand lance, and great shearwater research teams. His comprehensive data analysis has helped sanctuary managers advance their understanding and protection of seabirds.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

kevin powers holds a shearwater for tagging
Powers holds a seabird for tagging. Photo: Boston University Marine Program

How did you become interested in seabirds?

My initial interest in graduate school was waterfowl, but I was able to get a temporary assignment with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska in 1976 when they were conducting a statewide assessment of marine birds and mammals on the Alaskan coastline. I spent several months in the field cataloguing marine bird colonies, primarily alcids (for example, puffins) but also fulmars and kittiwakes. I spent a month on an island working with a University of Alaska Ph.D. student studying breeding biology of tufted puffins. I had never been exposed to such birds or habitats before and as I learned more, I became more intrigued. This experience lead me to a full-time position at the Manomet Bird Observatory in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to study the pelagic distribution of seabirds on Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine.

Why are seabirds important? What do they tell us?

Seabirds are indicators of the health of our ocean. Their breeding success depends on predation at their colonies by pests such as rats, foxes, and other predatory birds, such as bald eagles, but also by the availability of forage fish to feed their chicks. As coastal areas become polluted or overcrowded with humans and their activities, forage fish become less available and parenting birds have to expend more time and energy to find forage for their young. When stressed in any of these factors, breeding success declines. If the decline continues for several years, then the bird population declines.

Increases in ocean temperatures and acidification can lead populations of forage fish to shift spatially or temporally or simply decrease. This is a big issue for less mobile birds like the Atlantic puffin. Thus, large scale oceanographic changes affecting phytoplankton and zooplankton distribution and abundance lead to changes in fish populations and subsequently to birds and mammals.

kevin and other seabird observer on ship
Powers now serves as a volunteer with several of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary’s research programs. Photo: Anne-Marie Runfola/NOAA

What are some of the key threats facing seabirds? Can anything be done to reverse or mitigate these threats?

Ocean acidification and increasing water temperatures due to climate change are the principal concerns because they directly alter the food web, which ultimately leads to changes in forage fish populations. Increased fixed fishing gear in coastal waters where seabirds forage has been an increasing threat in the past decade. Changes in the use of fossil fuels and greenhouse gases would certainly be the only way to mitigate global warming, but more regulation in the amount of fixed fishing gear would considerably help bycatch problems.

What makes Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary such a special place to study seabirds?

Stellwagen Bank is uniquely situated in that it is close to dense populations of humans and to marine traffic and commercial fishing. The sanctuary has seasonal importance to seabirds year-round, but also to marine mammals including North Atlantic right whales. Both the birds and mammals are feeding on the same forage fish. Right whales are primarily dependent on a selected group of small crustaceans called copepods, and these copepods are food for many of the fish eaten by other mammals and seabirds.

What have been some of your most memorable experiences while conducting research in the sanctuary?

Simply getting an opportunity to be at sea in an area important to seabirds and marine mammals is extremely rewarding. When great shearwaters are present in the sanctuary in July and August, they are often in association with pods of feeding humpback whales. We sometimes spend an entire day around feeding humpbacks, which are occasionally breaching, while working on taking measurements and noting plumage characteristics of birds.

kevin and another volunteer recording wildlife observations
Powers (at left) assists in recording wildlife observations. Photo: Caleb Delphin/NOAA

Last year, you devoted more than 1,000 volunteer hours to the sanctuary. What motivates you to give so much of your time to the sanctuary?

During this past year, I was steadfastly working on a manuscript describing the foraging areas and movements of great shearwaters in the Gulf of Maine so that important satellite tagging work could be published. It is extremely time-consuming, and writing technical reports is a skill that I had to relearn after being away from it for so long. All information in your manuscript has to be concisely described, analyzed, and interpreted as to why it is significant. Then everything is subject to peer-review, so all the comments by reviewers have to be addressed. It is a long and arduous process, but seeing these results get published is extremely rewarding, and in the end that is the main motivator.

Describe some of your other projects you have worked on at the sanctuary.

The only significant project that I have undertaken at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is extracting and reprocessing the citizen science database on bird distribution from the Seabird Stewards’ S4 study. Since 2012, they have surveyed the entire bank four to five times a year using the same path across the bank. All data collected from the surveys are stored in a database, but it is not easy to analyze. With a background in computer and statistical analysis, I was able to create a method to extract the data once and reformat it into a more convenient format. These metadata are more condensed but can now be readily analyzed to compare years, seasons, areas of the sanctuary, specific or groups of species, and more.

Why should people volunteer at national marine sanctuaries?

Fieldwork requires many people over the course of a year. Many people want to be involved and learn from their experiences, which they transmit out to their individual networks. Many of these people are extremely qualified with specific skills and others learn them. To carry all of this capability would be enormously expensive to the sanctuary. But with volunteers we are able to accomplish so much in the way of data collection and educational outreach and in turn give back something cherished by the volunteers.

kevin on deck holding binoculars
Powers watches for seabirds in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off of Boston, Massachusetts. Photo: Anne-Marie Runfola/NOAA

Alexander Dacy is a student at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, and a communications volunteer intern at NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.