Coastal Ocean Mammal and Bird Education and Research Surveys (BeachCOMBERS), 1997-2007: Ten years of monitoring beached marine birds and mammals in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Recommendations and Case Studies


Hannahrose M. Nevins1, Scott R. Benson1, 2, Elizabeth M. Phillips1, Jean de Marignac3, Andrew P. DeVogelaere3, Jack A. Ames4 and James T. Harvey1

1Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, 8272 Moss Landing Road, Moss Landing, CA 95039 USA

2NOAA/Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories,Norte Bldg., 7544 Sandholdt Rd., Moss Landing CA 95039 USA

3Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, 299 Foam Street, Monterey, CA 93940 USA

4California Department of Fish and Game, Office of Spill Prevention and Response, Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center, 1451 Shaffer Road, Santa Cruz, CA 95062 USA

Since May 1997, the volunteers of the Coastal Ocean Mammal and Bird Education and Research Surveys (BeachCOMBERS) have conducted systematic surveys in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The main goal of the program was to determine human and natural impacts to the Monterey Bay ecosystem. Marine birds and mammals are conspicuous top predators of the marine ecosystem, and the deposition of these dead organisms on beaches was used as an indicator of marine ecosystem health, including availability of prey resources, anthropogenic impacts, and natural die-offs.

The specific objectives of the Beach COMBERS program were to: 1) obtain baseline information on rates of beach deposition of marine birds and mammals; 2) assess causes of seabird and marine mammal mortality; 3) assist resource management agencies in early detection of unusual rates of natural and anthropogenic mortality; 4) assess abundance of tar balls (oil patches) on beaches; 5) build a network of interacting citizens, scientists, and resource managers; and 6) disseminate information to the resource managers, public, and educational institutions. This long-term monitoring of beached marine birds and mammals enabled resource managers to determine trends in deposition to better identify significant events affecting wildlife including oil spills, fishery interactions, harmful algal blooms, and natural starvation events.

During 1997 to 2007, we identified 28 unusual mortality events including 15 that were documented based on a significant increase in deposition greater than a baseline threshold level, and 13 other events where the main indicator was increased oiling (i.e., >2% of birds) or strandings of very rare species. Several documented events were of regional significance occurring along the west coast of North America (e.g., 1997-98 El Niño, 2003 fulmar die-off). The documentation of other events made important contributions to science (e.g., 1998 Domoic Acid Bloom, 2007 Mystery Foam or initiated resource protection actions (e.g., S/S Luckenbach oil spill, Gill-net bycatch). We recommend the continuance of this long-term program to increase stewardship and understanding of marine birds and mammals in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Key Words:

Beach survey, bycatch, El Niño, harmful algal bloom, marine mammal, monitoring, Monterey , Bay National Marine Sanctuary, oil, seabird