Marine birds and mammals comprise an important community of meso- and upper-trophic-level predators within the northern California Current System (NCCS). The NCCS is located within one of the world’s four major eastern boundary currents and is characterized by an abundant and diverse marine ecosystem fuelled seasonally by wind-driven upwelling which supplies nutrient-rich water to abundant phytoplankton inhabiting the surface euphotic zone. The oceanographic conditions throughout the NCCS fluctuate according to well-described seasonal, inter-annual, and decadal cycles. Such oceanographic variability can influence patterns in the distribution, abundance, and habitat use among marine birds and mammals. Although there are an increasing number of studies documenting distributions and abundances among birds and mammals in various portions of the NCCS, there have been no comprehensive, large-scale, multi-seasonal surveys completed throughout this region since the early 1980s (off northern California; Briggs et al. 1987) and early 1990s (off Oregon and Washington; Bonnell et al. 1992, Briggs et al. 1992, Green et al. 1992). During 2011 and 2012, we completed the Pacific Continental Shelf Environmental Assessment (PaCSEA) which included replicated surveys over the continental shelfslope from shore to the 2000-meter (m) isobath along 32 broad-scale transects from Fort Bragg, California (39° N) through Grays Harbor, Washington (47° N). Additionally, surveys at a finer scale were conducted over the continental shelf within six designated Focal Areas: Fort Bragg, CA; Eureka, CA; Siltcoos Bank, OR; Newport, OR; Nehalem Bank, OR; and Grays Harbor, WA. We completed a total of 26,752 km of standardized, low-elevation aerial survey effort across three bathymetric domains: inner-shelf waters (<100-m depth), outer shelf waters (100 – 200-m depth) and continental slope waters (200 – 2000-m depth). Survey effort was similar among seasons (winter, summer, and fall) and between years and varied according to the three bathymetric domains: 47% (12,646 km) covered the continental slope, 33% (8887 km) covered the inner-shelf (0 – 100-m depth), and 20% (5,219 km) covered the outer-shelf.
Overall, we recorded 15,403 sightings of 59,466 individual marine birds (12 families, 54 species). During winter, seven species groupings comprised >90% of the total number of birds counted (19,033) with Common Murres (Uria aalge) representing the majority of individuals counted (70.4% of total). The remaining six most abundant taxa included: Surf/White-winged Scoters (Melanitta perspicillata/M. fusca; 4.8% of total), Herring/Thayer’s Gulls (Larus argentatus/L. thayeri; 3.8% of total), Cassin’s Auklets (Ptychoramphus aleuticus; 3.8% of total), Glaucous-winged Gulls (Larus glaucescens; 3.7% of total), Black-legged Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla; 2.0% of total), and Western Gulls (Larus occidentalis; 1.9% of total). During summer, five species comprised >95% of the total number of birds counted (17,063) with the majority comprised of Common Murres (54.1% of total) and Sooty Shearwaters (Puffinus griseus; 34.4% of total). The remaining most abundant three taxa included: Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels (Oceanodroma furcata; 3.3% of total), Western Gulls (2.1% of total), and Leach’s Storm-Petrels (Oceanodroma leucorhoa; 1.1% of total). During fall, nine species comprised >85% of the total number of birds counted (23,376) with the majority comprised of Common Murres (50.0% of total) and Sooty Shearwaters (10.5% of total). The remaining seven taxa included Cassin’s Auklets (5.2% of total), Surf/White-winged Scoters (5.1% of total), Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels (3.8% of total), Red/Red-necked Phalaropes (Phalaropus fulicarius/P. lobatus; 3.2% of total), California Gulls (Larus californicus; 3.1% of total), Northern Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis; 2.7% of total), and Sabine’s Gulls (Xema sabini; 2.2% of total). Throughout the entire PaCSEA survey area, average densities (± SE) at sea for all marine birds combined were similar between fall (23.7 ± 1.9 birds km-2) and winter (24.0 ± 1.9 birds km-2) and least during summer (16.3 ± 2.2 birds km-2). Marine bird densities at sea varied according to bathymetric domain and season. Throughout the entire PaCSEA study area average densities (± SE) for all marine birds combined were greatest over the inner-shelf domain (<100-m depth) during fall (49.4 ± 5.0 birds km-2) and similar during winter (37.4 ± 4.6 birds km-2) and summer (37.5 ± 6.4 birds km-2). Within the outer-shelf domain (100 – 200-m depth), average densities for all marine birds combined were greatest during winter (34.6 ± 4.2 birds km-2), lesser during fall (16.2 ± 1.7 birds km-2), and least during summer (6.9 ± 1.1 birds km-2). Within the farthest offshore waters over the continental slope domain (200 – 2000-m depth) average densities for all marine birds combined were greatest during fall (10.0 ± 2.2 birds km-2) and winter (9.3 ± 1.5 birds km-2), and lesser during summer (6.2 ± 1.4 birds km-2).
We observed 16 cetacean species and five pinniped species. Among the Mysticeti (baleen whales), humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) were most frequently observed (114 sightings of 264 individuals) during summer and fall mostly over the outer-shelf and slope waters, however, individuals were also seen within the Siltcoos, Nehalem, Fort Bragg, and Eureka Focal Areas. We recorded 11 Odontoceti (toothed whale) species. Harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) were the most frequently sighted (164 sightings of 270 individuals). Harbor porpoises were present year-round and most frequently sighted within the inner-shelf domain throughout the entire study area in all seasons. Harbor porpoises occurred in all six Focal Areas, with noteworthy aggregations within the Eureka, Siltcoos, and Grays Harbor Focal Areas. We recorded 246 sightings of 375 individual pinnipeds (5 species). California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) were the most frequently sighted and were present year-round with slightly more sightings recorded during the fall. California sea lions showed a decreasing frequency of sightings and relative abundance with distance from shore across the bathymetric domains surveyed, being most frequently observed over the inner-shelf. Northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris), harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), and northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) were observed occasionally during all seasons with harbor seals occurring nearshore (usually within 10 km of the coast) and northern fur seals almost exclusively beyond the shelf break (> 200-m depth), especially during winter off Oregon and Washington. Northern (Steller’s) sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) were uncommonly sighted during winter and fall.