Points of concern in Sea Duck conservation

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Anchorage Daily News. Friday, July 30, 1999
BIOLOGIST WORRY SEA-DUCK DECLINE WARNS OF ENVIRONMENTAL RISK
The Associated Press San Francisco -

Scientists are warning that dropping numbers of sea ducks could indicate more widespread ecological decay. The decline comes at the same time that populations of "puddle ducks," which prefer fresh water, are growing because of several consecutive wet winters in their breeding grounds and habitat improvement programs.

Wildlife biologists are alarmed by the decline, especially since sea ducks were once the most abundant of waterfowl, the San Francisco Chronicle reported this week. Affected birds include three species of scoters, three species of eiders, scaup, goldeneyes, oldsquaws and harlequin ducks.

Field researchers point to habitat destruction, pollution and in some cases, excessive hunting, for the decline. Oceanic warming also may play a role.

"It's not just about losing some birds," says Bruce Wright, chief of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Office for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau.

"When bald eagles and ospreys began disappearing, we ultimately found that the problem was widespread contamination of the freshwater environment by DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides, something that had profound implications for human health.

"I think sea ducks are like canaries in the coal mine they're telling us something is seriously wrong out there."

Wright used to see rafts of up to 15,000 surf scoters big, mostly black shellfish-eating ducks. "You just don't see that kind of thing anymore, he said.

One of the factors affecting scoters are contaminants in the marine food web that are particularly problematic in urban estuaries like San Francisco Bay, Los Angeles Harbor and San Diego Harbor. Because shellfish store up pollutants such as petrochemicals and heavy
metals, scoters get megadoses of toxics when they feed in contaminated waters.

And scoters are running into trouble in their breeding grounds -- the boreal forests of northern British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. In the past 15 years, these vast woodlands have been the site of ambitious development projects.

"In little more than a decade, about 15 percent of the boreal forests of northeast British Columbia have been destroyed," said Fritz Reid, the western North America director of conservation planning for Ducks Unlimited, one of the nation's largest conservation groups.

"The development is happening at a terrifically rapid rate, and I think the evidence is pretty clear that it's affecting not only scoters, but other marine and estuarine ducks (that nest in boreal forests), such as bufflehead and goldeneye."

Declines of the spectacled eider and Steller's eider have been so profound that they are now listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Lead poisoning, overexposure to toxic chemicals and hunting have contributed to the eiders' dwindling numbers, Reid said.

Meanwhile, puddle ducks are at a 50-year high. About 44 million mallards, widgeon, teal and pintail will be winging their way south from their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska this fall.

The robust migration follows several years of slowly recovering populations after catastrophic lows in the 1970s and 1980s.

Biologists credit two factors in the recovery: a series of consecutive wet winters in the birds' prime breeding grounds in the Canadian prairies, and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, a cooperative venture between government agencies and farmers in Canada, the United States and Mexico designed to enhance waterfowl habitat.

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