Forage fish, coastal birds and how it all interacts
The coastal waters of Oregon are part of what is known as the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem which runs from Baja California, Mexico to the central coast of British Columbia. Along this stretch of the Pacific coastline there has been historically significant distribution of what are known as ‘forage fish’. These forage fish are relatively small and often live in the upper layers of the open water which makes them prime prey for other fish, marine mammals and birds. Species like pacific herring, various smelt species, sandlance, pacific sardine, northern anchovy and more are all considered forage fish.
In Oregon, forage fish play a significant role in both the balance of the natural system and in the balance of Oregon’s nearly $700-million commercial fishing industry. In 2016 the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Pacific Fisheries Management Council drafted protections specific to Oregon’s coastal waters to protect the integrity of remaining forage fish stocks. Unfortunately, the abundance, distribution and biodiversity of forage fish in Oregon waters is poorly understood. Nevertheless, their impact on the health of avian species on the Oregon coast is substantial.
So what does this have to do with Birds with Fish?
Oregon’s coastal birds rely heavily on fish and other marine and estuarine invertebrates to sustain themselves and their chicks during breeding season. For imperiled species of interest like the tufted puffin, the presence and abundance of calorically-rich forage fish species is vital to their reproductive success. Birds with Fish attempts to quantify prey composition of tufted puffins and other coastal birds in Oregon by identifying forage fish (and other invertebrates) from non-invasive photographs. Through this data we also hope to capture an important and descriptive snapshot of what forage fish are in Oregon’s nearshore waters.
Tufted puffins are an inconic Oregon coast seabird…
But their future is uncertain after a nearly 95% population collapse from the 1980’s to 2010. In the span of a few decades tufted puffins population numbers fell from ~5,000 to ~400…coast wide. This population decline sparked concern from both the conservation community and the Fish and Wildlife Service. However in 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not list the tufted puffin under the Endangered Species Act after identifying a handful of important data gaps, one of which includes what are tufted puffins eating on the Oregon coast and what might they be feeding their chicks?
This question, and a deep passion for Oregon’s tufted puffins, inspired the creation of Birds with Fish. For a species with such an emblematic role on the Oregon coast, tufted puffins in Oregon are understudied.
Oregon’s puffins face a series of other threats that act as hurdles to the remaining population’s ability to rebound. These include the increase in coastal raptors like bald eagles and peregrine falcons and reductions in available suitable nesting habitats. But the presence and abundance of forage fish is perhaps the most important, and least well-known, hurdle that tufted puffins face in Oregon.
The Seabird Oceanography Lab at Oregon State University developed Birds with Fish to begin addressing the question of what tufted puffins might be feeding their chicks during breeding season and how forage fish presence might be changing over time near tufted puffin colonies.