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Marine Bird Spatial Distributions on the Pacific Outer Continental Shelf: Data Synthesis and Modeling

This project began in August 2015 and was completed in September 2021

Currently, there is a gap in useable information regarding marine bird distributions on the U.S. Pacific Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). We are synthesizing available high-quality, at-sea data to produce high-resolution, predictive maps of occurrence and density for marine bird species within the Pacific OCS. These maps will help fill important spatial planning information gaps and guide placement of offshore renewable energy facilities in order to minimize impacts on birds.

Why We Care
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is required to conduct detailed environmental analyses of alternative and renewable energy activities proposed on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).  The potential direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts on coastal communities and marine environments must be evaluated in order for BOEM to make environmentally sound decisions that avoid or minimize effects of renewable energy development.

Experience from previous onshore and offshore wind development suggests that minimizing impacts to bird species is an important consideration for siting processes, leading to a need for statistically robust maps of the long-term patterns of bird occurrence and abundance on the Pacific OCS. These maps must be based on appropriate statistical models that synthesize all available high-quality data of at-sea distribution, relative abundance, and occurrence of birds. The focus of these maps must be on characterizing long-term (decadal to inter-decadal) patterns, since energy facilities and lease blocks are fixed in space and not subject to movement post-construction.

Presently, there are extensive databases for the Pacific OCS that provide geo-referenced at-sea relative density and occurrence observations of birds in the marine environment using ship and aerial transect survey methodologies. However, these data are scattered with many gaps between transects and non-surveyed areas and have been collected at different times and places, using different survey platforms and methodologies. Developing high resolution spatial models for the Pacific OCS will provide critical information for renewable energy siting and allow BOEM to predict and evaluate potential environmental effects of management actions and project approvals on marine bird populations and distributions.

What We Are Doing
This project has three main objectives:

1. Help define habitat characteristics and identify mechanisms that aggregate seabirds, by providing detailed information linking environmental and oceanographic habitat features and conditions to bird distributions within the Pacific OCS.

2. Provide a consistent, unified set of oceanographic and environmental spatial data layers relevant to mobile marine animals that will be useful for other BOEM information needs and contribute directly and indirectly to other BOEM studies.

3. Provide a cohesive summary report, synthetic map products, and analyses that support incorporation of avian spatial distributions into spatial planning processes for renewable energy siting and decision support.

We are working to collect, compile, and evaluate the quality of all available recent transect surveys of marine birds conducted on the Pacific OCS. These data will then be synthesized using a vetted, ecologically and statistically appropriate modeling framework that integrates oceanographic, atmospheric, physiographic, and other relevant variables from remote sensing, long-term observational databases, data-assimilating ocean models, and other sources. This framework allows us to predict long-term patterns and variability of relative occurrence and density of marine birds on the Pacific OCS. To the extent possible, predictive maps will fully cover the U.S. continental Pacific (off California, Oregon, and Washington), from nearshore to the EEZ (200 nautical miles offshore), including both the OCS and state waters. Maps and models will be accompanied by appropriate statistical measures of model accuracy, certainty, and variability in marine bird patterns over time and space.

We are collaborating with the research groups of Dr. Josh Adams at the U.S. Geological Survey Western Ecological Research Center and Dr. Lisa Ballance at NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Southwest Fisheries Science Center Marine Mammal and Turtle Research Division, who are leading the survey data collection and evaluation process.

Benefits of Our Work
Predictive maps of density and occurrence for marine bird species will be used by BOEM, other federal and state agencies, and non-governmental organizations to aid sound environmental stewardship, renewable energy siting, and other spatial planning needs on the Pacific OCS.

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