This discussion was first published as part of the 2012 update, and remains open for comment in the hope that we will receive enough information to reassess the species in 2014.
Kittlitz’s Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris is distributed in the Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska and Chukchi Sea, and breeds in parts of Alaska, USA, and far eastern Russia (USFWS 2010a). The species is listed as Critically Endangered under criterion A4b,c,d,e on the basis that it was estimated and projected to be undergoing a decline of at least 80% over a period of 36 years (estimate of three generations) stretching from the past into the future (1986 – 2022).
Apparently large declines in the species’s abundance since the late 1980s and early 1990s have been reported in Alaska. Surveys in much of the Alaskan range have indicated that populations may have declined by 80-90% in c.15 years since the early 1990s (Piatt et al. undated). In Prince William Sound, the population declined by 84% between 1989 (6,436 birds) and 2000 (1,033 birds) following a possible longer-term decline since 1972 when the population was estimated at 63,000 individuals (K. Kuletz in litt. 2002, Kuletz et al. 2003). The rate of decline in Prince William Sound between 1989 and 2004 has been estimated at 63% (5% per year) (Kuletz et al. 2011b). In the Malaspina Forelands, numbers declined by 38-75% between 1992 and 2002. Total abundance in Icy Bay, Alaska, was estimated to be 1,725-2,372 birds in 2002, suggesting a decline of 59% over a three-year period (Kissling et al. 2006).
Some more recently published studies also report local declines in this species. An analysis of survey data from the Kenai Fjords, Alaska, suggests that a 90% decline occurred between 1989 and 2002; however, this analysis is hampered by changing survey methods over time, few years of survey effort and low population numbers (Arimitsu et al. 2011). In the Lower Cook Inlet, survey data suggest that the breeding population declined by 84% (26% per year) between 1993 and 1999 (Kuletz et al. 2011a). Anecdotally, the apparent recent absence of the species from LeConte Bay may indicate a change in its range in south-eastern Alaska, where the species’s abundance and distribution appears to be influenced by changes in icefields, raising concerns over its future in the region (Kissling et al. 2011).
In contrast, Day et al. (2011) assert that there is a lack of strong evidence for a significant population change in the breeding and non-breeding populations in northern Alaska between 1970-1999 and 2000-2009. Likewise, anecdotal evidence implies that numbers have been stable around Attu Island over recent decades (Madison et al. 2011). Increases have been recorded in other areas, such as Unalaska and Atka islands (Romano et al. 2005a,b, in Day 2011).
Somewhat conflicting reports have emerged from Glacier Bay, where density estimates declined by 89.1% between 1991 and 2000, with c.2,200 birds estimated there in 1999-2000 (K. Kuletz in litt. 2002). Further surveys there suggest a decline of 85-90% between 1991 and 2008, with an annual rate of decline of between -10.7% and -14.4% (Piatt et al. 2011). However, Kirchhoff et al. (2010) recorded an increase in the on-water density of the species in Glacier Bay between 1993 and 2009, from 2.07 birds/km2 to 3.55 birds/km2, although this change is not significant. This apparent stability in the population suggests that any decline had occurred before 1993, most likely in the winter of 1991/1992 (Kirchhoff et al. 2010). Similarly, Hoekman et al. (2011b) recorded an apparent increase in abundance from numbers recorded in 1999-2007 compared with numbers in 2009-2010, although earlier surveys could have suffered from negative biases. Overall, the various studies conducted in Glacier Bay are unlikely to be comparable owing to differences in survey methods and coverage (Kirchhoff et al. 2010, Hoekman et al. 2011b).
According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, data from Agattu and Kodiak islands indicate that nest success is very low (less than 10%), with few juvenile birds having been documented there, and blood chemistry analysis at Icy Bay indicates that few females there (c.10%) are breeding despite the majority (c.90%) being physiologically prepared to breed (USFWS 2011). It is also suspected that adult mortality is slightly elevated by losses to hydrocarbon contamination, entanglement in gillnets and high predation pressure (USFWS 2011).
There are no trend data from other parts of the species’s range, but anecdotal information suggested population declines were occurring in at least some of these other areas. A population of 500 breeding pairs has been estimated to be present in the Sea of Okhotsk, and it is thought that the Asian coast supports a significant proportion of the global population (Artukhin et al. 2011).
Recently, the reliability of earlier studies that have documented apparent declines has been called into question, and inconsistencies in survey and analytic protocols have cast uncertainty over the species’s population status and trend (Day 2011, Hoekman et al. 2011a). The accuracy of counts conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s has been questioned owing to problems with study designs and analyses (D. Vincent-Lang in litt. 2010, Day 2011). Such results have been deemed unsuitable for use as baseline data from which to calculate trends (Day 2011). For example, surveys conducted by Piatt et al. (undated) in the early 1990s predominantly sampled near-shore waters and some offshore areas with high densities of Kittlitz’s Murrelet, resulting in inflated baseline data (Day 2011). For many studies that report significant declines, the comparison of data sets from surveys employing disparate methodologies has been strongly criticised (Day 2011).
In recent years, more rigorous, species-specific survey methods have been introduced (D. Vincent-Lang in litt. 2010, Day 2011), and studies relevant to this species have been helped by advances in technology and software, as well as statistical awareness (Day 2011). Population counts in some areas during the past decade have indicated stable or increasing trends in almost every year surveyed, and declining trends that were significant in the past are no longer significant (D. Vincent-Lang in litt. 2010). In addition to indications that the species may not be declining as rapidly as previously thought, larger than expected populations have been located in areas such as the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak and Russia, resulting in a recent upward revision of the global population estimate (D. Vincent-Lang in litt. 2010). The total population has recently been estimated at 30,900-56,800 individuals (USFWS 2010b).
Although Day (2011) criticises many of the analyses that have indicated very rapid declines in this species, he indicates that smaller declines in parts of or the whole of its range may still have taken place, and that shifts in the species’s geographic preferences could also account for local trends. Localised surveys for this species can probably never be said to be capturing data on closed populations, and variation in numbers resulting from movements of birds can occur over a range of temporal scales (e.g. Kirchhoff et al. 2010). Local abundance estimates may also be affected by anomalous oceanographic conditions (Arimitsu et al. 2010). Many potential threats have been linked with previously detected declines in this species; however, there is apparently little empirical evidence to support such links (D. Vincent-Lang in litt. 2010). It has also been pointed out that other marine species that are not undergoing rapid declines are exposed to the same threats of climate change, variation in food availability, oil-spills, fisheries bycatch, shipping and tourism (D. Vincent-Lang in litt. 2011).
With this information in mind, it is proposed that the species’s status be re-evaluated. However, there is a lack of consensus regarding the species’s current population trend, with views that the species may be declining more slowly than previously thought, or that it could be stable or increasing. Further information is requested on the likely trend over a period of three generations (c.36 years) in the past, future or both. A decline of 50-79% over this period would qualify the species for downlisting to Endangered, while a decline of 30-49% would make it eligible for downlisting to Vulnerable. A rate of decline approaching 30% (typically 20-29%) would likely warrant its downlisting to Near Threatened, and typically a decline of less than 20% over three generations would suggest the species should be downlisted to Least Concern. Such a change in category would take place in the 2012 update if it were shown to be based on an improvement in knowledge, rather than a real improvement in the species’s status. If a real improvement has taken place, it needs to be shown that this has been the case for at least five years.
Arimitsu, M. L., Piatt, J. F., Romano, M. D., Madison, E. N. and Conaway, J. S. (2010) Kittlitz’s and Marbled Murrelets in Kenai Fjords National Park, South-Central Alaska: At-Sea Distribution, Abundance, and Foraging Habitat, 2006-08. USGS Numbered Series: 2010-1181. US Geological Survey.
Arimitsu, M., Piatt, J., Romano, M. and van Pelt, T. I. (2011) Status and distribution of the Kittlitz’s Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris in Kenai Fjords, Alaska. Marine Ornithology 39: 13-22.
Artukhin, Y. B., Vyatkin, P. S., Andreev, A. V., Konyukhov, N. B. and Van Pelt, T. I. (2011) Status of the Kittlitz’s Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris in Russia. Marine Ornithology 39: 23-33.
Day, R. H. (2011) Evaluating Population Trends of Kittlitz’s Murrelets in Alaska. Report for Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation, prepared by ABR, Inc. – Environmental Research & Services, Fairbanks, AK.
Day, R. H., Gall, A. E., Prichard, A. K., Divoky, G. J. and Rojek, N. A. (2011) The status and distribution of Kittlitz’s Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris in northern Alaska. Marine Ornithology 39: 53-63.
Hoekman, S. T., Moynahan, B. J. and Lindberg, M. S. (2011a) Monitoring Kittlitz’s and marbled murrelets in Glacier Bay National Park: 2009 annual report. Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SEAN/NRTR—2011/440. Fort Collins, CO: National Park Service.
Hoekman, S. T., Moynahan, B. J. and Lindberg, M. S. (2011b) Monitoring Kittlitz’s and marbled murrelets in Glacier Bay National Park: 2010 annual report. Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SEAN/NRTR—2011/441. Fort Collins, CO: National Park Service.
Kirchhoff, M., Smith, M. and Wright, S. (2010) Abundance, population trend, and distribution of Marbled Murrelets and Kittlitz’s Murrelets in Glacier Bay National Park. Final Report to the National Park Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Anchorage, AK: Audubon Alaska.
Kissling, M., Lukacs, P. M., Lewis, S. B., Gende, S. M., Kuletz, K. J., Hatch, N. R., Schoen, S. K. and Oehlers, S. (2011) Distribution and abundance of the Kittlitz’s Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris in selected areas of south-eastern Alaska. Marine Ornithology 39: 3-11.
Kissling, M. L., Reid, M., Lukacs, P., Gende. S. M. and Lewis, S. B. (2006) Temporal and spatial variability of Kittlitz’s Murrelets in Icy Bay, Alaska. Pp. 175 in Wings without borders: IV North American Ornithological Conference, October 3-7, 2006, Veracruz, Mexico. Waco, TX, USA: American Ornithologists’ Union.
Kuletz, K. J., Nations, C. S., Manly, B., Allyn, A., Irons, D. B. and McKnight, A. (2011) Distribution, abundance, and population trends of the Kittlitz’s Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Marine Ornithology 39: 97-109.
Kuletz, K. J., Speckman, S. G., Piatt, J. F. and Labunski, E. A. (2011) Distribution, population status and trends of Kittlitz’s Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris in Lower Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay, Alaska. Marine Ornithology 39: 85-95.
Kuletz, K. J., Stephensen, S. W., Irons, D. B., Labunski, E. A. and Brenneman, K. M. (2003) Changes in distribution and abundance of Kittlitz’s Murrelets Brachyramphus brevirostris relative to glacial recession in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Mar. Ornithol. 31: 133-140.
Madison, E. N., Piatt, J. F., Arimitsu, M. L., Romano, M. D., Van Pelt, T. I., Nelson, S. K., Williams, J. C. and Degange, A. R. (2011) Status and distribution of the Kittlitz’s Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris along the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak and Aleutian islands, Alaska. Marine Ornithology 39: 111-122.
Piatt, J. F., Arimitsu, M., Drew, G., Madison, E. N.M., Bodkin, J. and Romano, M. D. (2011) Status and trend of the Kittlitz’s Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris in Glacier Bay, Alaska. Marine Ornithology 39: 65-75.
Piatt, J., Climo, L., Springer, A. and Duncan, T. (undated) Marine bird distribution in Glacier Bay National Park during the summer of 1991. Unpublished report prepared by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Anchorage, AK.
USFWS (2010a) Species Assessment and Listing Priority Assignment Form, for Brachyramphus brevirostris (Kittlitz’s Murrelet). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
USFWS (2010b) Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Review of Native Species That Are Candidates for Listing as Endangered or Threatened; Annual Notice of Findings on Resubmitted Petitions; Annual Description of Progress on Listing Actions. Federal Register Vol. 75, No. 217.
USFWS (2011) Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Review of Native Species That Are Candidates for Listing as Endangered or Threatened; Annual Notice of Findings on Resubmitted Petitions; Annual Description of Progress on Listing Actions. Federal Register Vol. 76, No. 207.
The following document was sent by Jack Hodges on 23 January 2012 in reaction to this discussion topic: Brachyramphus brevirostris Hodges Jan2012
The following letter was sent by Kathy Kuletz on behalf of herself, John Piatt and David Irons, on 31 January 2012, in response to the letter by Jack Hodges: Brachyramphus brevirostris Kuletz Jan12
The following letter from Jack Hodges was requested to be posted on 4 December 2012, in response to the letter by Kuletz et al. posted on 31 January 2012: Hodges Response to Kuletz Posting
Population trend spreadsheet from Matt Kirchhoff, received on 9 February 2014: Population Trends – Post 1998 Kirchhoff Feb14