The Kittlitz’s murrelet is found only in Alaska and portions of the Russian Far East. A large percentage of the world population, which may number only a few tens of thousands, breed in Prince William Sound. The Kenai Peninsula coast and Kachemak Bay are also important concentration areas for this species.
Seventy-two Kittlitz’s murrelets were positively identified among the bird carcasses recovered after the oil spill. Nearly 450 more Brachyramphus murrelets were not identified to the species level, and it is reasonable to assume that some of these were Kittlitz’s. In addition, many more murrelets probably were killed by the oil than were actually recovered. Estimates of the total number of Kittlitz’s murrelets that died as a result of the spill vary from 255–2,000; it has been suggested that this represents 5–10 percent of the world’s population.
Kittlitz’s Murrelets will have recovered when their population has recovered to a level had the spill not occurred. Stable or increasing productivity within normal bounds will be an indication that recovery is underway.
Few studies have been conducted on Kittlitz’s murrelets, however they are known to nest in areas of glacial outcroppings, and they are thought to reside within the Sound from May until September/October. Kittlitz’s murrelets have an intrinsically low population growth rate, thus recovery from an acute loss is likely to be slow.
The Kittlitz’s murrelet is a candidate species for listing as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. They declined 99 percent from 1972 to 2004 and 88 percent from 1989–2004. While this decline likely started prior to the spill, the rate of decline was 18 percent per year from 1972, but beginning in 1989 that rate increased to 31 percent.
Natural recovery has not restored this resource to pre-spill levels or levels that would have existed had the spill not occurred. What little evidence is available reveals possible predator limitation, within their feeding areas, and impacts due to a shifting climate. While it is likely that basic biological studies would be useful to understand what may be limiting recovery, it is unlikely, due to these confounding effects that further study will clarify whether there are still residual effects of the spill. In addition, the rarity of this species makes it difficult and expensive to study.
The recovery status for the Kittlitz’s murrelet remains UNKNOWN. Further, due to the small populations and confounding effects discussed above, other than ongoing marine bird surveys to track population trends, it is unlikely that additional surveys would inform a determination of the species’ injury status.
Click HERE for more information on Trustee Council funded studies of Kittlitz's murrelet.