THE TIME THE CANARY DIED: The passing of the Red-necked phalarope from the Quoddy Region and what it means.

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When I went away to do graduate work at McGill University I experienced a vacuum, a void, a realization that something was missing. Moving west to Victoria BC helped but the feeling didn’t leave … something was missing deep inside me.

Finally, we were drawn back to the Bay of Fundy where I started a biological company in 1964 and it became clear that my soul “belonged” here in the Bay of Fundy. I was home.

But all was not well. There were some really serious problems from aerial sprays, domestic pollution as well as some serious industrial pollution. The St. Croix River was so badly polluted that the tidal flats literally bubbled at low tide, while the caustic air peeled the paint from buildings and jacked the incidence of emphysema alarmingly. Nevertheless I remained optimistic, that the Bay would continue to be the spectacularly productive area that it had always been. But I was wrong. As time passed, more serious changes began to happen around the Bay as industry expanded everywhere and continues to do.. 

It was in the 1980s when a significant ecological shift occurred in the Quoddy Region where I was working on a year around, daily basis. Hundreds of thousands to millions of phalaropes disappeared from the Head Harbour Passage area off the western shore of Campobello Island at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. At the same time, nearshore fisheries dropped significantly, particularly in the St. Croix Estuary and Western Passamaquoddy Bay. Stressors included:

  1. industrial pollution from the former Georgia Pacific Mill in Woodland and other industries,
  2. increasing domestic pollution from municipalities and the growing numbers of coastal residences,
  3. Forest spraying in the headwater and New Brunswick in general, and
  4. the development of the aquaculture industry in West Isles and Passamaquoddy Bay and the rise in nutrient loading throughout the area.

During the 1960s and 1970s black liquor from a Georgia Pacific pulp mill in Woodland, Maine, was dumped directly into the St. Croix River resulting in the elimination of commercial fisheries in the Estuary and Western Passamaquoddy Bay. With the advent of aquaculture and its expansion beyond the carrying capacity of the area, nutrient loading from large salmon sites resulted in surface pollution that may have caused the disappearance of the red-necked phalarope and other species that are affected by the presence of herring oils from salmon feed spread across the surface of the waters. Aquaculture also impacted the weir fishery, if only by displacement.

Whatever the reasons, the Passamaquoddy Bay area and Head Harbour Passage were impacted by an event or perhaps cumulative events, that caused the decline of certain fish and bird species and, possibly, a crash of the vital Calanus finmarchicus population, a vital planktonic species that was the principal food of the phalarope and which supported an array of creatures from tiny fishes to the gigantic and endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. In spite of these challenges, the Head Harbour Passage area has continued to support all of the species that it has in the past with a few notable absences.

Today, it seems likely that reduction in pollution from the St. Croix and the shrinking of the aquaculture industry may be having positive impacts that will see absent fish and bird species return in their previous numbers. Recent work shows the estuary is slowly returning to its former state with colonizing invertebrates reaching the upper estuary at St. Stephen.

All of this said, it is important to note that Head Harbour Passage has remained important to marine bird species in spite of the various challenges over the last two decades.

The productivity that supports the abundance of marine birds found in the Head Harbour Passage area also provides for an annual income that approaches a billion dollars on the Canadian side of the Quoddy area. This is truly an “eco-economy” that supports businesses that draw on the natural assets of the area. Part of this ecological background is the abundance of marine birds that, together with whales and seals, draw visitors from around the world.

The proposed LNG developments in Passamaquoddy Bay represented a clear move to an industrial port economy and even though plans have been dropped, the effort to industrialize the Quoddy Region continues and no protections have been put in place to manage the area to the benefit of all users and the environment

The threats to marine birds are clear and well understood. Simply put, increased boat traffic increases the risk of spills and major disturbance. As traffic rises, we can anticipate more and more measurable impacts that will negatively affect populations that depend on this area.

The birds of Head Harbour Passage are of Global Significance; a resource that is considered so important that it belongs to the world at large, not just the residents of the Quoddy Region, not just Americans or Canadian, not industry, but the world.

The uniqueness of the marine bird populations that utilize Head Harbour Passage mitigates against the further industrialization of the Quoddy Region .

THE QUODDY REGION IS AN AREA OF GLOBAL SIGNIFICANCE FOR BIRDS

Important Bird Areas of Canada (IBA, http://www.ibacanada.com/) is part of an international conservation initiative co-ordinated by BirdLife International. Canadian Co-partners are Bird Studies Canada and Nature Canada.

IBA identifies the Quoddy Region in general and Head Harbour Passage in particular as an area of Global significance for Marine Birds. The following is an edited version of their status analysis for the Quoddy Area IBA (Figure 1). The information provided clearly specifies the nature of the habitat, its uniqueness to marine birds, and the important species and numbers of marine birds known to use the area. Some birds, such as cormorants, eagles, herons, eiders, and other ducks are not included in the listing, although these and other species occur commonly in the designated area.

The Quoddy Region IBA

The IBA Designation for the Quoddy Region:

IBA Quoddy Region
Wilson’s Beach/Plage Wilson, New Brunswick
Site Summary
NB037 Latitude
Longitude
45.07° N
66.9° W
Elevation
Size
0 m
45.0 km²
Habitats:
open sea, inlets/coastal features (marine)
Land Use:
Fisheries/aquaculture
Potential or ongoing Threats:
Disturbance, Fisheries, Oil slicks
IBA Criteria: Globally Significant: Congregatory Species, Colonial Waterbirds/Seabird Concentrations, Shorebird Concentrations
 

Site Description

The Quoddy region IBA is a body of seawater, primarily in Canadian waters, found in southern coastal New Brunswick. The IBA encompasses all the waters in an area roughly bounded by: Eastport, Maine, the west side of Campobello Island to East Quoddy Head, White Horse Island, and the east side of Deer Island to Deer Island Point. This includes an area called Head Harbour Passage. Upwellings and areas of high productivity occur here because of strong currents created by the narrow passages that lead through to Passamaquoddy Bay.

Birds

Large feeding congregations of several species of waterbirds are found in the Quoddy region in the fall and winter. During fall migration, globally significant numbers of Bonapartes Gulls pass through the region. The migration of the species is drawn out, with non-breeding birds arriving in the Quoddy region as early as June and a few adults lingering as late as January. Birds arrive in a succession of waves, and remain in the area for several weeks, during which time they substantially increase their body weight. A boat survey in December 1998 found 6,030 gulls near Head Harbour Passage, while in the late summer of the same year, a minimum of 3,500 Bonapartes Gulls were observed and an estimated 5,300 were thought to be present. These numbers are between 1 and 2% of the global population. Additionally, estimates from the early 1980s indicate that this species may peak at 10,000 birds in the late summer, while an even higher recent estimate of over 25,000 Bonapartes Gulls comes from November 1997.

December also brings impressive numbers of other larids. Christmas Bird Counts based out of Eastport recorded an average of 5,175 Herring Gulls and 1,393 Great Black-backed Gulls over the 1995-1999 period. The vast majority of these birds were within the IBA. The Herring Gull average includes 14,531 birds that were seen in 1996; this was an unusual year, when an exceptionally high peak of 65,637 Black-legged Kittiwakes were also seen. Typical early winter numbers of kittiwakes are usually in the hundreds or low thousands. The averages above represent 1 or 2% of the North American Herring Gull population and 1% of the North American Great Black-backed Gull population. Oldsquaw and Common Eider are other common wintering birds, while scoters are present in summer.

Until recently, immense numbers of Red-necked Phalaropes congregated in the Quoddy region. Typical numbers seemed to have ranged from the hundreds of thousands to a million, but two million were also reported. A primary food source of the phalaropes was euphausiid shrimp, which will swarm at the surface of the water. Its not known if the reason that large numbers of phalaropes have not been seen since the early 1980s is due to a change in this food source or for some other reason.

Northern Gannet had not been recorded breeding on the coasts of New Brunswick or Nova Scotia since the mid 19th century, but in 1999 for the first time since then, an adult bird was found brooding a chick on White Horse Island.

Complete Bird records for Quoddy Region

  Species Season Number Unit Date Reference  

American Black Duck (Atlantic Flyway)

WI

1,009

  I 1998 98-99 CBC

Black-headed Gull

WI

22

G I 1995 95-96 CBC

Black-legged Kittiwake (W. Atlantic)

WI

1,868

  I 1993 93-94 CBC

Black-legged Kittiwake (W. Atlantic)

WI

2,935

  I 1994 94-95 CBC

Black-legged Kittiwake (W. Atlantic)

WI

521

  I 1995 95-96 CBC

Black-legged Kittiwake (W. Atlantic)

WI

65,637

C I 1996 96-97 CBC

Black-legged Kittiwake (W. Atlantic)

WI

13

  I 1997 97-98 CBC

Black-legged Kittiwake (W. Atlantic)

WI

745

  I 1998 98-99 CBC

Black-legged Kittiwake (W. Atlantic)

WI

764

  I 1999 99-00 CBC

Black-legged Kittiwake (W. Atlantic)

WI

3,202

  I 1998  

Bonaparte’s Gull

FM

10,000

G I 1985* Braune 1989

Bonaparte’s Gull

FM

3,500

  I 1998 MacIntosh 1999

Bonaparte’s Gull

WI

25,000

G I 1997  

Bonaparte’s Gull

WI

670

  I 1999 99-00 CBC

Bonaparte’s Gull

FM

5,300

G I 1998 MacIntosh 1999

Bonaparte’s Gull

WI

6,030

G I 1998 Huettmann et al. 1999

Glaucous Gull

WI

1

  I 1998 98-99 CBC

Great Black-backed Gull

WI

2,117

G I 1993 93-94 CBC

Great Black-backed Gull

WI

767

  I 1994 94-95 CBC

Great Black-backed Gull

WI

440

  I 1995 95-96 CBC

Great Black-backed Gull

WI

2,932

G I 1996 96-97 CBC

Great Black-backed Gull

WI

1,844

G I 1997 97-98 CBC

Great Black-backed Gull

WI

954

G I 1998 98-99 CBC

Great Black-backed Gull

WI

796

  I 1999 99-00 CBC

Herring Gull

WI

1,638

  I 1995 95-96 CBC

Herring Gull

WI

14,531

G I 1996 96-97 CBC

Herring Gull

WI

4,083

G I 1997 97-98 CBC

Herring Gull

WI

2,044

  I 1998 98-99 CBC

Herring Gull

WI

3,579

G I 1999 99-00 CBC

Herring Gull

WI

11,115

G I 1993 93-94 CBC

Herring Gull

WI

3,056

G I 1994 94-95 CBC

Iceland Gull

WI

12

  I 1999 99-00 CBC

Lesser Black-backed Gull

WI

1

  I 1996 96-97 CBC

Little Gull

WI

1

  I 1994 94-95 CBC

Northern Gannet

BR

1

  P 1999  

Purple Sandpiper

WI

120

G I 1992 92-93 CBC

Red-necked Phalarope

FM

100,000

G I 1982 Foster 1983

Red-necked Phalarope

FM

100,000

G I 1971 Morrison et al. 1995

Red-necked Phalarope

FM

2,000,000

G I 1977 Morrison et al. 1995

Red-necked Phalarope

FM

15,000

C I 1978 Morrison et al. 1995

Red-necked Phalarope

FM

770,000

G I 1981 Morrison et al. 1995

Red-necked Phalarope

FM

35,000

G I 1981 Morrison et al. 1995

Red-necked Phalarope

FM

1,000,000

G I 1980 Vickery 1981

Red-necked Phalarope

FM

300,000

G I 1983 Foster 1984

Ring-billed Gull

WI

82

  I 1999 99-00 CBC
Note: species shown in bold indicate that their population level (as estimated by the maximum number) exceeds at least one of the IBA threshold (national, continental or global). The date is only an approximation.
 

Resurgence of Phalaropes and other species.

The reference to the disappearance of phalaropes from the area reflected shifts that occurred with several species including herring, mackerel, groundfish, whales, etc. The reasons for this are not clearly understood. However, several observers have suggested a shift back to the pre1980 period is underway with the return of certain fish schools and phalaropes. Norm Famous reported the following:

From: nfamous@maine.edu
To: maine-birds@mainebirding.net
Date: Tue, 27 Sep 2005 13:21:54 -0000
Subject: [MAINE-BIRDS] 800-1,000 red-necked phalaropes off Eastport and Campobello Island

In my earlier report of birds observed off Campobello Island last Thursday 9-22-05, I neglected to list a flock of 800-1,000 red-necked phalaropes off of Cherry Island. This is very significant in that red-necked phalaropes abandoned the Eastport-Campobello Island-Deer Island area in the mid 1980s. The collapse of the phalaropes in this area was due to a crash in Calanus finmarchicus (copepod) populations. Sampling this summer by the Canadian Wildlife Service has documented an increase in Calanus finmarchicus and a number of small phalarope flocks. A friend who works in Eastport has also observed several flocks this summer. Copepod numbers first crashed on the Scotian shelf (source area of the Eastport-Campobello Calanus finmarchicus population). They have been increasing in recent years. Hopefully, this is the beginning of the return of the massive flocks of the 2000th century (numbering over one million birds).

Norm Famous

Other Important Designations and References.

Some species such as the American eagle and cormorants are doing remarkably well and are common along the entire length of Head Harbour Passage and into Friars Roads and Western Passage.

Bald Eagle photographed on Campobello Island along the Head Harbour Passage Shore. (Copyright Old Sow Publishing).

Parks Canada has also identified the West Isles Area, including Head Harbour Passage, as an “Area of National significance” because of high productivity and the unique ecosystem. Part of this designation is due to the abundance of marine birds. There are numerous other references that identify the current and historical status of marine birds in the Head Harbour Passage area. Three that are of particular importance are:

  1. Gaskin, D.E., G.J.D. Smith, B.M. Braune, W.G. Halina, B. Vari. Status of Resident and Transient Sea Birds in Head Harbour Passage and Vicinity, New Brunswick, Canada. Department of Zoology, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ont., Canada. Report to United States Fish and Wildlife Service, September, 1979.
  2. Buzeta, M-I, R. Singh, and S. Young-Lai. Identification of Significant Marine and Coastal Areas in the Bay of Fundy. Canadian Manuscript Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Science 2635, 2003.
  3. MacKay, A.A. LNG in Passamaquoddy Bay. An online slide show located at:http://www.bayoffundy.ca/LNG/slideshow/. 2005.

Current IBA Designation

IBA Site Listing


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