A local seabird threatened by coastal development is currently being considered for inclusion on the national Endangered Species list.
The ashy storm-petrel’s population rates have been dipping rapidly in recent years, Shaye Wolf, a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said. She also added that in some locales, its numbers have literally been halved in the past 20 years. If reclassified as “endangered,” the small, gray, nocturnal bird would be granted additional federal protection under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
According to Wolf, artificial light produced from coastal fisheries, pollution and climate change have all created a perfect storm of danger for the species.
“There are really multiple threats – the area [the bird] relies on for survival is really hard hit by coastal development, and now it’s being hit by coastal climate change,” Wolf said.
The petrel, a distant relative of the albatross, lives in small crevices in coastal caves and breeds exclusively off the coasts of San Francisco and San Diego, as well as along the Channel Islands. Light pollution is one of the chief factors threatening the bird population, Wolf said.
“The birds evolved in darkness, and need it [for] their colonies,” Wolf said. “When you have a fishery that works so close to the nesting colonies with extremely bright lights, the islands are completely flooded by light,” she said. “The birds are attracted to light like moths, and will fly around the light structures, accidentally flying into them and getting killed. Even more get distracted by the light and forget to attend to their offspring, resulting in a drastically reduced population over time.”
Bill McIver, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been studying the ashy storm-petrel since the department received the petition for protection last year. He said his office has just concluded its initial 90-day assessment of the species and that the results looked promising for the bird.
“[The 90-day study] found that the petition presented sufficient evidence to indicate that listing the species as threatened or endangered may be warranted,” McIver said.
McIver added that the petition is now facing a 60-day public comment period, where experts are invited to submit any material relevant to the government study.
Wolf said that environmental restrictions placed upon the man-made entities threatening the seabird could also help ensure the petrel’s survival.
“Having double-hull requirements on oil tankers would lower the chance of oil spills,” she said. “And as for light pollution, simple things at offshore oil terminals like using shielding on lights so there’s less of an impact on the birds would be beneficial.”
Moreover, Wolf noted that efforts aimed at protecting the bird’s habitat are likely to prove beneficial to California’s overall environmental wellness.
“The declining health of the ashy storm-petrel reflects the declining health of the California coast,” Wolf said. “Improving the heath of this bird will also prove beneficial to the health of the California coast.”
Although the current administration has only added an average of eight animals per year to the endangered species list since it entered office in 2000, Wolf said she is confident the ashy storm-petrel will make it on the list.
“I think the science is clear that the birds need and deserve protection, and this protection is what the Endangered Species Act provides,” Wolf said. “But it’s a struggle to get imperiled species to be protected under this anti-wildlife administration.”
The group’s decision on whether or not the ashy storm-petrel will be added to the list will be made by July 14, 2008.