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Frontiers in Marine Science






With accelerating climate variability and change, novel approaches are needed to warn managers of changing ecosystem state and to identify appropriate management actions. One strategy is using indicator species—like seabirds as ecosystem sentinels—to monitor changes in marine environments. Here, we explore the utility of western gulls (Larus occidentalis) breeding on Southeast Farallon Island as a proxy of ecosystem state in coastal California by investigating the interannual variability in gull foraging behavior from 2013 to 2019 in relation to upwelling conditions, prey abundances, and overlap with humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) as gulls frequently feed in association with whales. Western gulls have a flexible diet and forage on land and at-sea. We combined gull GPS tracking data during the incubation phase, ecosystem survey data on multiple predator and prey species, and derived oceanographic upwelling products. When foraging at sea, gulls overlapped with cool upwelled waters. During 2015–2017, 25% more gull foraging trips visited land than in other years, where land trips were on average ∼8 h longer and 40% further than sea trips, which coincided with high compression of coastally upwelled waters (habitat compression) in 2015–2016. Gull foraging behavior was related to local prey abundances, where more foraging occurred near shore or on land when prey abundances were low. However, visual surveys indicated that ∼70% of humpback whale observations co-occurred with gulls, and the year with the most foraging on land (2017) corresponded to regionally low relative whale abundances, suggesting gull movement patterns could be an indicator of whale presence. Further, both whales and gulls forage near-shore under high upwelling habitat compression and low krill abundance. Hence, the deployment of year-round tags on gulls with the capability of near real-time data accessibility could provide important fine-scale metrics for conservation and management of the threatened yet recovering eastern Pacific humpback whale population between infrequent and coarse surveys. Entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes are major inhibitors to whale recovery and have increased concomitantly with human use of ocean resources. Moreover, as climate variability and change increase, novel indicators should be explored and implemented to inform marine spatial planning and protect species across multiple scales from new risks.

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Funding Sponsor

National Aeronautics and Space Administration


biologging, ecosystem indicator, entanglement, foraging ecology, humpback whale, marine heatwave, predator-prey, upwelling

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


Biological Sciences