May 16, 2022

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The Northern Gannet helps scientists study the health of the St. Lawrence | Science in Action

Scientists are studying the Northern Gannet in order to better understand the health of the St. Lawrence ecosystem. Biologist, Jean-François Rail, discusses his research and what the scientific community has learned so far.

This research is an important part of the St. Lawrence Action Plan, a joint initiative between the governments of Canada and Quebec.

Learn more about the St. Lawrence Action Plan: http://planstlaurent.qc.ca/en/home.html

Learn more about the state of the St. Lawrence: http://planstlaurent.qc.ca/en/state_monitoring/overview_of_the_state_of_the_st_lawrence.html

* * * * * Transcript * * * * *

JEAN-FRANÇOIS RAIL (Seabird Biologist, Environment and Climate Change Canada):
The St. Lawrence is an extremely important ecosystem. If you look at Quebec’s population, it’s spread all along the St. Lawrence River, from the estuary to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. So, the population indeed has an impact on the St. Lawrence ecosystem. Therefore, we have a responsibility to conserve this ecosystem, not only for the sake of biodiversity but also for our own well-being.

ON SCREEN:
ST. LAWRENCE ACTION PLAN
SCIENCE IN ACTION

Hi, my name is Jean-François Rail. I am a migratory bird population biologist for the Canadian Wildlife Service of Environment and Climate Change Canada.
The work we do allows us to closely monitor the Northern Gannet population. We have a great responsibility for this species since the entire Northern Gannet population of the Americas is found in Canada. The species only has six breeding colonies, three in Quebec and three in Newfoundland. In terms of numbers, 75% of the total Northern Gannet population breeds in Quebec. So, we bear a huge responsibility for the conservation of this species.
In addition, the problems that the Northern Gannet faces when it is in the Gulf of St. Lawrence reflect the health of its environment. Therefore, using the Northern Gannet as a bioindicator helps us to see the changes that are currently occurring in this ecosystem.
Every five years, we evaluate the size of the Northern Gannet population. Then, we look at the population trend, in other words whether the population is declining, has remained stable or is increasing. Next, we evaluate the Northern Gannet’s breeding success. Last, we look at levels of contaminants in the species’ eggs.
First, we conduct a photographic survey of the colonies. This means actually getting in a plane to fly over the colonies and take photos. We use the photos to carefully count the number of nests, one by one, to get an accurate assessment of the number of breeding pairs. Then, we measure breeding success by assigning a number to roughly 400 nests in the photos, in certain places in the colony. We visit each nest a minimum of four times during the season to see if an egg has been laid in it, if the egg has hatched, and then, after this, if the chick keeps growing until it fledges and leaves the nest. Lastly, we collect around 15 eggs, which we send to the National Wildlife Research Centre in Ottawa so that it can analyze the contaminants in the eggs.
The species’ breeding success is believed to have decreased mainly because of problems with food. The Northern Gannet is a bird that dives into the water to catch fish. By monitoring these birds’ feeding areas, we realized that the gannets often travel very long distances to feed, but sometimes come back with no fish to feed their young. Therefore, during difficult years, we see birds that travel long distances and young that sometimes die because they are undernourished.
Fortunately, the Northern Gannet is a very long-lived species. So, even if breeding success has not been particularly good in recent years, the adults live for a long time. Therefore, the size of the population remains fairly high at the present time. Breeding success has improved slightly since 2012 but is still fairly low. We believe that, for the population to be self-sustaining, breeding success should probably be between 60% and 70%. Currently, it’s lower than that.
There is hope for the Northern Gannet population. Currently, its main prey species are very abundant in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In addition, this species is able to adapt to a wide range of conditions, can use different types of prey and therefore can feed on other species of fish that may be doing better.
Yes, we must have hope.

ON SCREEN:
ST. LAWRENCE ACTION PLAN
planstlaurent.qc.ca

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