PETITIONS TO LIST THE
KITTLITZ'S MURRELET AS AN ENDANGERED SPECIES
Murrelet Driven towards Extinction by Global Warming?
May 10, 2001 the Center, joined by the Coastal Coalition, Eyak
Preservation Council, Lynn
Canal Conservation, Inc. and the Sitka
Conservation Society formally petitioned the
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to list the Kittlitz's murrelet
as an Endangered Species under the federal Endangered Species
Act. The petition also requests that critical habitat be designated
for the species.
Kittlitz's murrelet, Brachyramphus brevirostris, is
a small diving seabird in the Alcid (Auk) family which breeds
only in certain sections of coastal Alaska and to a limited
extent in the Russian Far East. The largest known populations
occur in Southeast and Southcoastal Alaska, where dramatic
population declines have been observed over the past decade
or so. In Prince William Sound, data show an average 14.5%
annual decline between 1989 and 1998. Recent surveys also
suggest a decline of 80% in Glacier Bay between 1991 and 1999.
The current worldwide population likely numbers approximately
10,000 individuals, a dramatic decline from the several hundred
thousand estimated to occur in the Gulf of Alaska alone in
The Kittlitz's murrelet is sometimes referred to as the "Glacier
Murrelet" because in the summer it forages almost exclusively
at the face of tidewater glaciers or near the outflow of glacier
streams, and nests in alpine areas in bare patches among the
ice and snow. This intimate association with glaciers is unique
among seabirds. The Kittlitz's murrelet is related to the
marbled murrelet, and overlaps considerably with this species
in range. However, the Kittlitz's murrelet is differentiated
from the marbled murrelet by its highly specific glacial-affected
and Kessel (1973) reported a flock of 10,000 Kittlitz's
murrelets in the upper half of Unakwik Inlet on 30 July,
1972. Today, the worldwide population may number less
than 10,000, and recent estimates for Unakwik Inlet suggest
that less than 100 birds remain there.*
and Kessel (1973) reported a flock of 10,000 Kittlitz's murrelets
in the upper half of Unakwik Inlet on 30 July, 1972. Today,
the worldwide population may number less than 10,000, and
recent estimates for Unakwik Inlet suggest that less than
100 birds remain there.*
little is known about this rare and mysterious species. Its
winter range, for example, is almost entirely unknown. The
Kittlitz's murrelet nests high in rugged coastal mountains,
where females lay one egg in little more than a scrape or
depression in bare spots among the snow and ice. The diet
of the Kittlitz's murrelet consists of forage fish and macrozooplankton.
by Global Warming and Reduced Prey Availability
The Kittlitz's murrelet's breeding and foraging habitat is
disappearing. Global warming is happening even faster in Alaska
than in more temperate regions. Average temperatures in the
range of the Kittlitz's murrelet have risen 5° F (3° C) since
the 1960s and 8° F (4.5° C) in the winter.
addition to this overall warming trend, the Gulf of Alaska
underwent a cyclical regime shift in 1976-1977 from a cold
to a warm regime. The warming of ocean temperatures due to
this shift has been linked to the decline of the Kittlitz's
murrelet forage fish prey such as capelin, herring, and sandlance.
by Marine Oil Pollution, Vessel Traffic and other Human Activities
The Kittlitz's murrelet appears to have been substantially
impacted by the 1989 T/V Exxon Valdez oil spill. There is
evidence that the species suffered a larger proportionate
loss of its population than any other species in the spill.
There is little evidence that the Kittlitz's murrelet has
since recovered from the spill in Prince William Sound. The
risk of catastrophic oil spills has not been adequately reduced
within the range of the Kittlitz's murrelet since the T/V
Exxon Valdez oil spill. If anything, the risk of another spill
has probably increased.
is also evidence that chronic disturbance from vessel traffic
in glacial fiords (in particular large cruise ships) can cause
Kittlitz's murrelets to abandon feeding areas. Impacts from
vessel traffic may include the scattering of the Kittlitz's
murrelet's forage fish prey, and disturbance from the underwater
noise generated by the vessels.
murrelets are also sometimes caught in near shore gill-net
fisheries, when these fisheries overlap with Kittlitz's murrelet
congregations. The petition calls for increased observer coverage
of the near shore gill-net fisheries in order to document
the actual extent of Kittlitz's murrelet bycatch.
A near total lack of recruitment has been documented in one
recent study in Prince William Sound. Recruitment failures
are also suspected in Glacier Bay, one of the species' historic
strongholds. The precise cause of the Kittlitz's murrelet's
inability to produce chicks that survive and mature is unknown.
It is likely related to one or more of the above threats.
Kittlitz's murrelet warrants immediate listing under the Endangered
Meares Glacier, AK Unakwik Inlet, Chugach; Thomp/Port US Navy
Photo July 31, 1957. Photograph from the American Geographic
Society Collection archived at the National Snow and Ice Data
Center, University of Colorado at Boulder and obtained from
the Internet at http://www-nsidc.colorado.edu.