Populations of the pigeon guillemot (Cepphus columba) and other piscivores have been in decline for several decades in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, and a decline in abundance of lipid-rich schooling fishes is hypothesized as the major cause. We tested this hypothesis by studying the breeding biology of pigeon guillemots during 1995-1999 while simultaneously measuring prey abundance with beach seines and bottom trawls. Our study area (Kachemak Bay, Alaska) comprises two oceanographically distinct areas. Populations of a lipid-rich schooling fish, Pacific sand lance (Ammodytes hexapterus), were higher in the warmer Inner Bay than in the colder Outer Bay, and sand lance abundance was higher during warm years. Populations of low-lipid content demersal fishes were similar between areas. Chick survival to age 15 days was 47% higher in the Inner Bay (high-lipid diet) than in the Outer Bay (low-lipid diet), and estimated reproductive success (chicks fledged nest-1) was 62% higher in the Inner Bay than in the Outer Bay. Chick provisioning rate (kJ chick-1 h-1) increased with the proportion of sand lance in the diet (r2=0.21), as did growth rate (g day-1) of younger (beta) chicks in two-chick broods (r2=0.14). Pigeon guillemots in the Inner Bay switched to demersal prey during years of below-average sand lance abundance, and these birds reacted to 38-fold interannual changes in sand lance abundance with reductions in beta chick growth rates, with no decline in beta chick survival. In contrast, the proportion of nests experiencing brood reduction in the Outer Bay (demersal diet) increased >300% during years of below-average demersal abundance, although demersal fish abundance varied only 4-fold among years. Our results support the hypothesis that recovery of pigeon guillemot populations from the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill is limited by availability of lipid-rich prey.
Additional publication details
Response of pigeon guillemots to variable abundance of high-lipid and low-lipid prey