SIMoN
  Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
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Volunteer Corner

Coastal Ocean Mammal and Bird Education and Research Surveys (Beach COMBERS)


Project Leader: Hannah Nevins
Moss Landing Marine Laboratories
e-mail: hnevins@mlml.calstate.edu
phone: 831-771-4422

 SIMoN Video: Beach COMBERS
In 1997, we began a beach survey program called Coastal Ocean Mammal and Bird Education and Research Surveys (Beach COMBERS) using trained volunteers to survey beached marine birds and mammals monthly at selected sections of beaches throughout the Monterey Bay area. The program is a collaborative project between Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML) the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS), and other state and research institutions including the California Department of Fish and Game and Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center (MWVCRC), with the specific goal of using deposition of beach cast carcasses as an index of the health of the sanctuary.

As of December 2004, we have more than 70 volunteers (each of whom received at least 20 hours of training) that survey 45 km of beaches in the MBNMS. This program has been greatly successful, providing data for a number of scientific papers, contributing to the conservation of sanctuary resources (e.g. data from Beach COMBERS indicated the gillnet fishery was killing large numbers of nearshore species; Forney et al. 2001), identifying and quantifying oiled wildlife, and a great many more accomplishments.

Project Objectives

  • Obtain baseline information on rates of deposition of beachcast birds and mammals: Trained volunteers identify and quantify all dead birds and mammals on sandy beaches along the central California coastline, between San Mateo/Santa Cruz County line and Cambria. Beach surveys are conducted monthly at most locations and 2-4 times per month at selected beaches. These data provide a baseline for deposition rates in the MBNMS during all seasons.
  • Assess causes of seabird and marine mammal mortality: Volunteers note the cause of death (e.g. presence of oil or entanglement in fishing line) for each organism found. When possible, fresh specimens are collected for post-mortem examination by a veterinary pathologist from CDFG/OSPR Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center.
  • Assess abundance of tar balls on beaches: The abundance of tar balls on beaches is determined and used as an indicator of amount of chronic or low-level oil deposition. In the case of large deposition of oil, volunteers will be trained in the proper procedure for sample collection and storage. These samples will be used to determine the source of the oil (e.g. natural seeps or vessel traffic).
  • Assist resource management agencies in early detection of mortality events, both natural and anthropogenic: Beach COMBERS consist of scientists, resource managers, and citizens that have formed a well-connected group. This allows the quick accumulation of information about the resources of the MBNMS into a centralized location, and the rapid dissemination of information to the management and enforcement agencies (e.g. MBNMS, CDFG, NMFS).
  • Build a network of interacting citizens, scientists, and resource managers: Frequent interactions in training sessions, enrichment events, and local meetings, provide a mechanism for scientists, citizens, and managers in the Beach COMBERS program to transfer information and awareness of resource management and policy.
  • Disseminate information to the public and educational institutions: Data from the Beach COMBERS program will be provided to the public and schools via Ecosystem Observations, the web pages of the MBNMS and MLML, a GIS-based webpage, scientific meetings, teacher education classes (MLML), and interactions with the public on the beaches.

Many local agencies and institutions participate in the BeachCOMBERS volunteer program. Participation ranges from allowing beach access and parking privileges to rehabilitating injured seabirds and marine mammals. Cooperative arrangements are listed below with corresponding agencies and institutions, and their respective links.

Collection training and processing of oil samples, tar balls, and oil from dead marine organisms

Dead pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) and cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) and sea turtles

Beachcast sea otters

Beachcast marine birds and mammals with ID tags or bands

Live-stranded marine mammals for potential animal rehabilitation

Sightings of live dying seabirds

Difficult seabird identification & ID training using museum specimens

Beach access and parking privileges

The Beach COMBERS program and those involved have recieved awards over the years. Below is a list of some of those awards.

2002

  • June 8, 2002. Star of the Sea. Presented to the Beach COMBERS Volunteers at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Volunteer Appreciation Event.

2000

  • March 2000. MBNMS Citizen Award. Presented to Scott Benson at the MBNMS Sanctuary Currents Symposium by the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments (AMBAG).
  • March 2000. Best Thematic Poster, MBNMS Sanctuary Currents Symposium. Presented to Scott Benson, Andrew De Volgelaere, and James Harvey

1998

  • June 12, 1998. Volunteer Recognition Award at the National Ocean Conference in Monterey, California: Presented to Beach COMBERS.

Involving citizens in conservation science

  • Since 1997 we have trained more than 100 volunteers that currently survey 45 km of beaches in the MBNMS.
  • Volunteers actively interact with recreational beach visitors during each monthly survey, educating them about the Beach COMBERS program and the MBNMS.
  • The Beach COMBERS program has been highlighted in a number of newspapers (e.g. Californian on 5 February 1998, The Bryan-College Station Eagle in Texas on 1 February 1998, The Monterey County Herald on 9 January 1998, San Jose Mercury News on 27 October 1997).
  • An annul summary of the activities of the Beach COMBERS program has been presented in Ecosystem Observations (Benson, DeVogeleare, and Harvey 1998, Benson 1999, 2000) and in the Volunteer Monitor (Ely 2002).
  • The Jason Project used video of the Beach COMBERS project in preparation for a Jason expedition to the Monterey Bay.
  • Volunteers have provided samples for various research projects in the area (e.g. Scoters and Grebes provided to Laird Henkel at MLML; Common Murres to Hannah Nevins, MLML; Shearwater genetic samples to Cheryl Baduini, Claremont College).
  • Results of the Beach COMBERS program have been presented at the MLML Community Seminar series, MBARI seminar program, Pt. Lobos volunteer meeting, Pacific Seabird Group annual meeting, and MBNMS Currents program.
  • BeachCOMBER Scott Benson, also a registered lifeguard, interrupted one of his surveys to save the life of a tourist caught in a rip tide.
  • June 12, 1998, Beach COMBERS was presented with the Volunteer Recognition Award at the National Ocean Conference by the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere.
  • June 2002, Beach COMBERS was presented with the "Star of the Sea" Volunteer Recognition Award at MBNMS 10th Anniversary Celebration.

Contributions to resource management and science:

  • Provide locations of sea otter carcasses to the California Department of Fish and Game (CDGF) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium; location of dead marine mammals to the National Stranding Network participants in this area (MLML and UCSC); and location of live marine mammals to The Marine Mammal Center.
  • Collection of tar balls, oiled feathers, and oiled carcasses for the CDFG Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response.
  • Presentation to a special symposium on seabird by-catch, by invitation from the Pacific Seabird Group.
  • Determining the location of banded birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Point Reyes Bird Observatory, California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Some birds found on beaches of Monterey Bay were tagged as far away as Hawaii.
  • Beach COMBERS were asked to assume the role of beach assessment and wildlife capture during the mystery spill of October 1997.
  • Beach COMBERS survey data were an essential source of information used to understand the threats to wildlife from gillnet fisheries (Forney et al. 2001). These actions led to increased protective measures for MBNMS resources vulnerable to gillnets.
  • Beach COMBERS provided some of the first data regarding the impacts of harmful algal blooms and domoic acid toxicity on seabirds and marine mammals (Gulland 2000, Scholin et al. 2000).

2003

  • "Winter Cleaning" by Elisabeth Nadin, Monterey County Herald, 1/28/03.

2002

  • Newsletter Article: Ely, E. Beached Bird Surveys, Dead Birds Do Tell Tales. 2002. The Volunteer Monitor, the National Newsletter of Volunteer Watershed Monitoring 14(1) 10-13.
  • Poster: "Detecting Oiled Seabirds in the Monterey Bay" at the 29th Annual Meeting of the Pacific Seabird Group, Santa Barbara, California, February 20-23, 2002
  • Poster: "Detecting Oiled Seabirds in the Monterey Bay" at the MBNMS Currents Symposium 2002, March 9, CSUMB.
  • May 2002: Completed training class for 10 new volunteers.
  • Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Volunteer Appreciation Event. Star of the Sea certificate "In great appreciation for your generous contribution of time and dedication to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, preserving it for future generations. We, at NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries, extend our thanks and gratitude." Presented to the Beach COMBERS June 8, 2002.

2001

  • May 2001: Added 6 new beaches to the program in the southern region of MBNMS. Two day training class for 17 new volunteers.
  • Draft Report: "Beach COMBERS (Coastal Ocean Mammal / Bird Education and Research Surveys) May 1997 - December 2000." Submitted to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, September 2001
  • Presentation: "Beach COMBERS a Beach Monitoring Program to Assess Natural and Anthropogenic Changes in Populations of Birds and Mammals in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary" Sixth Biennial Workshop on Research in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary October 25, 2001

2000

  • Contribution to paper: "Central California gillnet effort and bycatch of sensitive species, 1990-98." Proceedings of an International Symposium of the Pacific Seabird Group, Semi-Ah-Moo, Washington, February, 1999. In Press: "Seabird Bycatch: Trends, Roadblocks and Solutions."
  • Contribution to article: "Mortality of sea lions along the central California coast linked to a toxic diatom bloom." Published in NATURE 403(6) 80-84.
  • Poster: "Can we distinguish between natural and anthropogenic beach deposition events?" at the MBNMS Currents Symposium 2000, March 18, Santa Cruz, California. Awarded "Best Thematic Poster."

1999

  • Ecosystem Observations, Annual Report for the MBNMS, Article: "Seabirds within Monterey Bay - Observations of the quick and the dead."
  • Poster: "Monitoring Beachcast Marine Birds And Mammals In Monterey Bay" at the MBNMS Currents Symposium 1999, March 20, Seaside, California.
  • Report: "Establishing a Beach Monitoring Program to Assess Natural and Anthropogenic Changes in Populations of Birds, Mammals, and Turtles in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary." Moss Landing Marine Laboratories Technical Publication 99-03.

1998

  • Volunteer Recognition Award, signed by Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, presented to Beach COMBERS at the National Oceans Conference, Monterey, California.
  • Ecosystem Observations, Annual Report for the MBNMS, Article: "Deposition of marine birds and mammals on Monterey Bay beaches."
  • Poster: "Monitoring beachcast seabirds in Monterey Bay" at the 25th Annual Meeting of the Pacific Seabird Group, Monterey, California.
  • Poster: "Monitoring beachcast seabirds in Monterey Bay" at MBNMS Currents Symposium 1998, March 7, Santa Cruz, California.
  • Newspaper article: "Beached creatures tell tales: counters keep grim but vital tally." February 5, Californian, Salinas, California.
  • Newspaper article: "Combing the beach a learning experience." February 1, Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, California.
  • Newspaper article: "Beach COMBERS record beaches' dead." February 1, The Bryan-College Station Eagle, Texas.
  • Newspaper article: "Walking a grisly patrol: BeachCOMBERS record beaches' dead." January 9, Monterey County Herald, Monterey, California.
  • MBNMS Newsletter: "Beach COMBERS take to the sands!

1997

  • Newspaper article: "Survival fight for ocean foul: Volunteers scramble to save hundreds of birds from oily residue in Monterey Bay." October 27, San Jose Mercury News, San Jose, California.
  • Newspaper article: "Seabird deaths mystify wildlife experts." August 13, San Jose Mercury News, San Jose, California.
  • Beach COMBERS monitoring program begins in May.

Why is it important to count dead seabirds and marine mammals?

By counting dead seabirds and marine mammals, we are able to document mortality factors (causes of death) for these marine animals. This gives us important information about animals that are often difficult to study because they inhabit the ocean (a difficult place to work) and range over large areas. Some mortality factors may be due to human activities and if we know how many animals are being killed, we can determine if it is a serious threat and then alert management agencies to take appropriate actions.

With Beach COMBER surveys, we can quantify the relative impacts of different mortality factors. For example, in 1997, many more common murres were found washed up on beaches in the sanctuary than would be expect from just natural causes. Because we were able to quantify the deposition of murres in a standardized manner, we were able to identify an unusual mortality factor, in this case an increase in gill net fishing in southern Monterey Bay which was catching murres in their nets. During the following winter, we also found higher deposition of murres related to an oil spill, the Point Reyes Tarball Event.

Who is using the data? What are the data used for?

Beach COMBER data is useful to several groups of people:
  1. Resource managers, such as California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), who are tracking changes in marine bird and mammal populations. For example:
    • Southern sea otter carcasses (Enhydra lutris) were encountered frequently during April - September 1998, January - May 1999, and June - August 2000. Timely reporting of sea otter carcasses benefited California Department of Fish and Game and other researchers interested in identifying and quantifying specific mortality factors for this endangered species.
    • Beach COMBERS were asked to assume the role of beach assessment and wildlife capture during the mystery spill of October 1997.
    • COMBERS report banded birds and tagged marine mammals for the USFWS, Point Reyes Bird Observatory, CDFG, and NMFS. Some birds found on beaches of Monterey Bay were tagged as far away as Hawaii.
  2. Scientists use Beach COMBER data to understand harmful algal blooms (Domoic acid), document oiled wildlife, and understand movements and genetics of migratory species;
    • Beach COMBERS provided some of the first data regarding the impacts of harmful algal blooms and domoic acid toxicity on seabirds and marine mammals (Gulland 2000, Scholin et al. 2000).
    • Beach COMBERS were asked to assume the role of beach assessment and wildlife capture during the mystery spill of October 1997.
  3. Teachers and educators use Beach COMBER data to teach students methods of conducting science, identifying marine organisms and how to examine or analyze survey data. COMBERS participate in local community events, educating the public about marine birds and mammals.
    • Volunteers actively interact with recreational beach visitors during each monthly survey, educating them about the Beach COMBERS program and the MBNMS.
    • An annul summary of the activities of the Beach COMBERS program has been presented in Ecosystem Observations (Benson, DeVogeleare, and Harvey 1998, Benson 1999, 2000, Nevins & Harvey 2002) and in the Volunteer Monitor (Ely 2002).

What is an average number of dead seabirds and marine mammals?

This is the main objective of the Beach COMBERS project, to document the average trend in deposition rate (number per kilometer surveyed). The deposition rate is dependent upon many factors including wind, swell, tide, the orientation the beach, beach width, and time of year.

The time of year has a big influence on the number of birds and mammals washing in on beaches. During the winter, November - February, deposition of seabirds is low (1-2 per km) due to beach scour and lower densities of birds found nearshore. The number of beached birds (3-6 birds per km) increases during spring and summer with increased numbers of migrating birds and less scour of the beaches.

Fewer marine mammals than seabirds wash up on beaches; an average of less than 1 mammal per km comes in each month. When we have recorded an increase in the deposition rate of marine mammals, we have found it to be associated with a harmful algal bloom (a.k.a. red tide, domoic acid) or starvation due to the El Niño phenomenon which reduces the availability of prey.

Are you able to determine cause of death?

Rarely. Our ability to determine cause of death is limited by the "freshness" of the carcass. Ideally, we want to examine animals when they first wash in and haven't been scavenged by turkey vultures, coyotes, or gulls. More often, the carcass is old, dried, scavenged and difficult to identify. In these cases, we still might be able to determine if the animal died of starvation (very thin), entanglement (fishing line or net), or from oil contamination. When we get a fresh one, we use the expertise of veterinarian pathologists from the Santa Cruz Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center (CDFG-MWVCRC). The pathologist will conduct a complete necropsy and test for bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases. They also can x-ray the carcass to look for fragments of bullets or shark teeth.

What kills seabirds and marine mammals?

There are both natural and un-natural mortality factors. The natural causes of death for seabirds and marine mammals are starvation, disease, and predation (e.g. shark bite). Unnatural causes of death are oil spills, entanglement in fishing line or nets, boat strike, gun shot, and other human-related causes.

Oil spills kill greater numbers of seabirds than mammals because oil affects their ability to keep warm. Seabirds depend upon their feathers as insulation and get hypothermic (lose body heat quickly) when oiled. Diving birds, such as murres, loons, and grebes, are particularly vulnerable to oil spills because they cannot walk well on land and stay at sea.

Pelicans and gulls that are fed by humans get very tame to people on wharfs and fishing piers and often get tangled in fishing lines. Seabirds and mammals also may be attracted to fish lures, thinking they are fish. Surface feeding seabirds such as albatross and shearwaters mistake plastic for food and consume these unnatural items.

Marine mammals, particularly slow-moving large whales and sea turtles, are often hit by speeding boats. Fishing gear or other trash line that has been cast overboard can be a potential hazard to smaller marine mammals, such as dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions.

How long has this monitoring project been going on?

The Coastal Ocean Mammal / Bird Education and Research Surveys (COMBERS) began in May 1997. This is a collaborative project among the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, California Department of Fish and Game, and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. Since the project's inception, the surveys have been conducted monthly on 10 beaches in Monterey Bay. In 2001, five beaches were added in Cambria, and in 2003, three more beaches in the Monterey Bay area were added. We now survey a total of 18 beaches with 70 volunteers throughout the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Why do you leave dead animals on the beach? Shouldn't you clean the beach?

Dead seabirds and marine mammals on the beach are part of the natural nutrient cycling on the beach. Beach flies and sand hoppers which feed on carcasses are important prey for other animals, such as sanderlings, snowy plovers, and other shorebirds. Scavenging animals such as coyotes, turkey vultures, gulls, and shore crabs also eat these dead animals.

Sometimes COMBER volunteers will remove animals from the beach if they are of special scientific value (e.g. rare Beaked Whale, endangered species) or oiled.

If animals are cleaned from the beach between surveys, we cannot know if we are getting an accurate count of the deposition. So, we leave animals on the beach and mark them by clipping a toe (or tying a piece of jute twine on marine mammals) to learn how long a carcass will stay on the beach. This is important for documenting the extent of mortality events, and getting a good estimate of deposition rate. This information also has been useful to resource managers who are trying to calculate how many animals were killed in an oil spill, so they can correct for the number that may have been scavenged or lost at sea.
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