BC Conservation Data Centre: Conservation Status Report marbled murrelet

Posted May 18, 2010 | Categories : Marine Reserves,Reports |

BC Conservation Data Centre: Conservation Status Report

B.C. Conservation Data Centre. 2014. Conservation Status Report: Brachyramphus marmoratus. B.C. Minist. of Environment. Available: (accessed Jun 19, 2014).

Brachyramphus marmoratus
Marbled Murrelet

Scientific Name: Brachyramphus marmoratus
English Name: Marbled Murrelet
Provincial Status Summary
Status: S3B,S3N
Date Status Assigned: May 18, 2010
Date Last Reviewed: May 18, 2010
Reasons: Widespread breeder in old coastal forests, but has lost 35-50% of breeding habitat as a result of logging, urbanization, and agricultural development; this loss continues. Remaining habitat is being fragmented by further clearing and road-building, which may result in increased nest predation. Also vulnerable to any threat that reduces adult survival; especially vulnerable to oil spills, but also to by-catch in commercial gill-net fisheries.
Range Extent: 20,000-200,000 square km
Comments: Breeds along most of the British Columbia coast, with the majority of nests within 30 km of the sea, but up to 50 km inland in British Columbia (Burger 2002). At sea most murrelets remain within 1 km of the shore, except in sheltered inlets and straits where they might be further offshore (Burger 1995, 2002; Nelson 1997). COSEWIC (in prep) uses the NatureServe range map to estimate the range extent as 350,000 km2. It is likely less than this.
Area of Occupancy: >20,000 square km
Linear Distance of Occupancy: 200-1,000 km
Comments: [H]
Determing area of occupancy is difficult without detailed data on distributions within a watershed. One estimate that has been used is based upon the assumption that there will be one nest for every three birds entering the watersheds. This includes both members of each pair plus some non-breeding birds. This method gives an estimated AO of 55,100 km2 (range 40,300 to 69,800 km2) (COSEWIC in prep.).
Occurrences & Population
Number of Occurrences: >300
Comments: Widely but patchily distributed along the entire BC coast (Burger 2002). Unlike other alcids that nest colonially, Marbled Murrelets nest solitarily; however, more than one pair can occur in a single forest stand. Breeds in over 300 watersheds. No obvious metapopulations except those breeding in isolated forest stands on east Vancouver Island and the Southern Mainland coast. Murrelets from Unalaska Island to northern California comprise a single genetic population (Piatt et. al. 2007).
Number of Occurrences with Good Viability: Unknown what number of occurrences with good viability
Comments: Viability assumed to be linked to persistence of nesting habitat in old-growth forest within 30-50 km of marine foraging areas. Several thousand murrelets are known to nest in the larger coastal Provincial Parks (especially Carmanah-Walbran, Strathcona, and Fiordland) and National Parks (Pacific Rim and Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserves) which provide these conditions. Murrelets also nest in many smaller parks, WHAs and Ecological Reserves, and in unprotected forests, but their viability and numbers in these areas are not known.
Number of Occurrences Appropriately Protected & Managed: 4-40 occurrences appropriately protected and managed
Comments: Breeding habitat is protected in Pacific Rim and Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserves, and Carmanah-Walbran, Strathcona, Fiordland, Naikoon, and some other Provincial Parks, Wildlife Habitat Areas (WHAs) and Ecological Reserves. As of June 2010, 180 WHAs, totalling over 23,000ha, have been established in BC to protect nesting habitat (BC Ministry of Environment, Habitat Section). Mather et. al. (2009) estimated that ~600,000 ha of nesting habitat was protected when assessing 0-50 km inland of ocean. This is ~30% of the total estimated habitat available based on modelling by Mather et al (2009). This estimate included Marbled Murrelet nesting habitat that falls in Parks and Protected Areas, WHAs, Old Growth Management Areas, and Ungulate Winter Ranges. This estimate does not include Marbled Murrelet nesting habitat protection that is currently being implemented under the Coast Land Use Orders; currently (2009-2010) being established for the central coast, north coast and Haida Gwaii planning regions.
Population Size: 10,000 – 1,000,000 individuals
Comments: The 2007 population estimate for Marbled Murrelet in BC was 99,100 birds (72,600 – 125,600) based on radar inventory (Bertram et al 2007). Earlier estimates were between 55,000 and 78,000 (median estimate about 66,000 birds) and 2002 (Burger 2002) and 25,000-50,000 birds by Rodway (1990). The higher recent count is due to improved data and does not indicate an increase in the population.
Threats (to population, occurrences, or area affected)
Degree of Threat*: Substantial, imminent threat
    Scope: High
    Severity: High
    Immediacy: High
Comments: Logging of nesting habitat on old seral forest is identified as the greatest threat to the Marbled Murrelet (Ralph et al. 1995; Nelson 1997; MMRT 2003; McShane et al. 2004). Habitat which is clearcut logged will require 140-200 years to regain the necessary characteristics needed by murrelets (large trees, gappy canopy and large, mossy limbs). Early population declines in British Columbia coincided with the clearing of forests along the Strait of Georgia (Brooks 1926; Pearse 1946). Recent radar studies show that murrelet numbers are correlated with the amount and distribution of remaining old-growth forest and population loss is expected to be proportional to loss of nesting habitat (Burger 2001, 2002; Burger et al. 2004). Fragmentation of forests can increase nest predation rates and may partly explain the high rate of nest failure (Nelson 1997; Manley and Nelson 1999; Raphael et al. 2002), although nest success was not significantly affected by proximity to edges in Desolation Sound (Bradley 2002). Predation is the major cause of nest failure and corvids (mainly jays and ravens) are often responsible. Several studies have found higher densities of corvids in fragmented landscapes (Burger 2002), but stand structure and proximity to human activities also affect risks from corvids (Raphael et al. 2002). Little is known of predation by other animals such as squirrels, which are less tied to forest edges (Burger 2002, McShane et al. 2004). The Marbled Murrelet Recovery Team (MMRT 2003) concluded that ‘hard edges’ bordering recent clearcuts and young forest <40 years old were likely to have negative impacts on murrelets whereas natural edges and those bordering more mature second-growth were not. Because Marbled Murrelets are long-lived and have low recruitment, they are especially vulnerable to any threat that reduces adult survival (Burger 2002). They are especially vulnerable to oil spills (Carter and Kuletz 1995; Burger 2002; McShane et al. 2004); their habit of feeding close to shore makes them one of the most vulnerable species to this threat (King and Sanger 1979). The effects of chemical contamination have not been studied, but may be important in the Strait of Georgia (Burger 2002). Inshore gill-net mortality can have significant impacts on local populations (Burger 2002, McShane et al. 2004). In Barkley Sound an estimated 175-250 birds (about 6% of the population) were captured in gill-nets in a single season (Carter and Sealy 1984) and similar impacts have been noted in Alaska (Nelson 1997). Recent changes in fisheries patterns have probably reduced this threat in British Columbia, although it needs to be more thoroughly investigated (Burger 2002). To a lesser extent, purse seining, sports fishing, and aquaculture are potential threats (Burger 2002). Collisions with wind turbines, both on land and in shallow coastal seas, are a potential threat that is beginning to be investigated (Cooper et al. 2003). Changes in marine regimes might also impact murrelets, and there is some evidence that warmer than usual oceans have negative effects (Burger 2002).
* Derived from Scope, Severity, and Immediacy
Trend (in population, range, area occupied, and/or condition of occurrences)
Short-Term Trend: Declining (decline of 10-30%)
Comments: [EF] The following is from the executive summary from the 2010 COSEWIC report:
“There are few data to assess population trends, but most of the repeated at-sea surveys which cover 10 years or more show declines in excess of 1% per year during the breeding season. Similar declines are evident in the few repeated counts made during winter. Radar surveys report no significant trends but the bulk of the radar data have not been analyzed and detection of trends in some regions is confounded by changes in equipment, discovery of new flight paths, and likely effects of El Niños. Large and ongoing declines have been reported in the states bordering B.C.: 7.9% per year in Washington Zone 1 closest to B.C.; 4.3% per year across the Washington, Oregon and California range; and between 5.4% and 12.7% per year in Alaska. It seems unlikely that murrelets in B.C. would be immune from the negative factors driving these declines in neighbouring states. Taking both terrestrial and marine factors into account, and cognizant of the uncertainties in the data, it is quite likely that the population of Marbled Murrelets breeding in B.C. has declined by more than 30% over the past 30 years.”The at-sea surveys are mainly from a limited area on the west coast of Vancouver Island, making these data difficult to extrapolate.
Long-Term Trend: Substantial to moderate decline (decline of 25-75%)
Comments: Much of the habitat loss, and likely population decline, occurred between 1850 and 1970 (i.e. more than 3 murrelet generations ago). There is anecdotal evidence that populations in the Strait of Georgia declined significantly in the early 1900 coinciding with the removal of much of the old seral forest on east Vancouver Island and the Southern Mainland. Brooks (1926) noted a scarcity of Marbled Murrelets along the east coast of Vancouver Island in 1925-1926 compared with numbers observed in 1920 and earlier, and Pearse (1946) reported a decline around Comox between 1917 and 1944, coincident with the clearing of large tracts of old forests.
Other Factors
Intrinsic Vulnerability: Highly vulnerable
Comments: The Marbled Murrelet is a long-lived, low-fecundity species which is very vulnerable to population perturbation, and most demographic models show a strong probability of declining populations (Burger 2002; McShane et al. 2004). Breeding probably begins at age 3-5 years and a generation is about 10-11 years; a single egg is laid per breeding attempt and annual fecundity is low, typically 0.13-0.22 female offspring per adult female in British Columbia (Burger 2002; Cam et al. 2003). Its nesting habitat in old seral forests is highly specialized, but its foraging habitat is apparently less so. Adults, eggs and chicks are extremely vulnerable to predation in inland forests, and the breeding biology has obviously evolved in response to strong selection by predation.
Environmental Specificity: Very narrow. Specialist or community with key requirements scarce.
Comments: The species is strongly dependent on the availability of old-growth coniferous forest for nesting, although a small minority of nests have been found on mossy cliff ledges (Burger 2002). The species of tree does not seem critical, provided that the tree provides the necessary attributes. The essential attributes for nest sites are: a high site allowing stall landings and jump-off egress; gaps in the forest canopy allowing access to larger limbs in mid- to lower-canopy; a large (usually mossy) limb or deformity for the nest and landing pad; moss or duff to provide a soft nest substrate; and, at many nests, overhead foliage to provide some shelter at the nest site (Nelson 1997; Burger 2002; McShane et al. 2004). Murrelets use a relatively wide range of nearshore marine habitats and are not a prey specialist (Ralph et al. 1995; Nelson 1997).
Other Rank Considerations:
Information Gaps
Research Needs: Much has been learned in the past decade of the species nesting habitat requirements, but habitat algorithms used to predict and map suitable habitat have had only moderate success and require further development and testing (Tripp 2001; Burger 2002). The relationships between the areas and quality of forest habitat and the densities of murrelets nesting in these areas need further study. Data on the effects of forest fragmentation and edge effects on nest success are ambiguous (Burger 2002), and much more work is needed to clarify these factors. The interactions of marine (foraging) and terrestrial (nesting) factors in limiting local populations are poorly known but this knowledge is a major requirement for managing long-term population viability. The likely impacts of global climate change need to be investigated.
Inventory Needs: Population estimates through most of the province are crude, and population trend data are very sparse (Burger 2002). Radar counts are viewed as the most reliable inventory and monitoring method (MMRT 2003), but not all areas are suitable for radar inventory and at-sea surveys are needed to fill in gaps and also identify where the major foraging aggregations occur. A plan for long-term radar monitoring of selected watershed populations across BC has been drawn up (Arcese et al. 2005) but will need secure commitments of funding to implement. The amounts and spatial distribution of suitable nesting habitat are being mapped by the Marbled Murrelet Recovery Team and will need to be refined as habitat algorithms improve.
Protection: Maintaining sufficient areas of old seral forest with the attributes needed for nesting is the major priority (MMRT 2003). The Recovery Team identified the need for large core areas of suitable forest habitat within each of the six murrelet conservation regions (MMRT 2003) but none of these have yet been identified or protected. Fine-filter habitat maintenance within managed forests will largely be achieved through establishing Wildlife Habitat Areas (WHAs) and Old-growth Management Areas (OGMAs). The criteria for establishing WHAs under the Identified Wildlife Management Strategy (IWMS) have been updated (Burger 2004). The provincial government has been repeatedly criticized by the BC Forest Practices Board (2004, 2005) for tardy implementation of the IWMS provisions and constraining the establishment of WHAs.
Management: The draft Recovery Strategy (March 2005) enables the establishment of three Recovery Action Plans, for forest nesting habitat, population monitoring and marine issues. The Recovery Team (MMRT 2003) established six Conservation Regions for regional management of murrelets, and regional groups will be needed to implement the recovery strategy and action plans once these are approved. Mapping and inventory of existing areas of suitable nesting habitat and their legal status will be needed to implement regional plans for maintaining sufficient habitat and core areas as specified in the Recovery Plan. Recruitment of second-growth forests which are likely to mature into suitable nesting habitat has been identified as necessary for the East Vancouver Island and Southern Mainland Coast conservation regions (MMRT 2003). At sea the known and potential threats posed by oil spills, gill-net fisheries, aquaculture, and coastal wind turbines will need to be assessed, and mitigated and monitored if necessary.
Author: A. E. Burger and Ramsay, L.
Date: June 02, 2010
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Suggested Citation:

B.C. Conservation Data Centre. 2014. Conservation Status Report: Brachyramphus marmoratus. B.C. Minist. of Environment. Available: (accessed Jun 19, 2014).