USA: California: Common Murre Restoration Project, Central California Coast, USA

A biologist watches San Pedro Rock through a scope; Credit: San Francisco Bay NWR Complex
Murre Project study sites; Credit: San Francisco Bay NWR Complex
A common murre (Uria aalge californica); Credit: National Park Service


Between January 28 and February 4, 1986, the oil transportation barge, APEX HOUSTON, discharged about 26,000 gallons of crude oil while in transit from San Francisco Bay to the Long Beach Harbor. The oil spill injured seabirds and other aquatic life from Point Reyes to the Big Sur coast (Map, File 1). Approximately 9,000 seabirds were killed, including 6,300 common murres (Uria aalge; Carter et al. 2003). Restoration funds were recovered from the responsible party under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) and National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the California Harbors and Navigation Code, and other state law. Under the natural resource damage assessment provisions of the CWA, recovered damages shall be used to restore, rehabilitate, replace, or acquire the equivalent of natural resources injured or destroyed as a result of the oil spill. A trustee council, made up of representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), was established to review, select, and oversee implementation of restoration actions for natural resources injured by the spill. A Common Murre Restoration Project (CMRP) was developed with the goal to recolonize common murres at historic breeding colonies in the areas where they were extirpated or severely depleted by the oil spill. From 1996 through 2005, social attraction (decoys, mirrors and recorded vocalizations of common murres) was used to attract common murres to nest at Devil’s Slide Rock and other historic nearshore colonies in the vicinity of San Francisco. Common murres are monitored at these sites and at reference sites in the vicinity of Point Reyes and Big Sur in order to evaluate and refine the recolonization project. Monitored parameters include colony size, reproductive success, behavior, and breeding phenology of common murres. In addition, anthropogenic factors (e.g., boat disturbance, aircraft overflights, oiling) and natural factors (e.g., predation, diet, climatic fluctuations) that affect the success of recolonization efforts have been documented. In 2005, after ten years of restoration efforts, the project had exceeded the goal of establishing 100 breeding pairs of common murres at Devil’s Slide Rock for six consecutive years. Breeding by common murres on the adjacent Devil’s Slide mainland was also established.

Quick Facts

Project Location:
37.5774058, -122.5216341

Geographic Region:
North America

Country or Territory:
United States of America



Area being restored:
250 Km of California Coastline

Organization Type:
Governmental Body


Project Stage:

Start Date:

End Date:

Primary Causes of Degradation

Contamination (biological, chemical, physical or radiological)

Degradation Description

The APEX HOUSTON oil spill, which occurred from Point Reyes (Lat 37.993 Lon -122.536) to Point Sur (Lat 36.306 Lon -121.896), California, (Map, File 1) killed an estimated 8,978 seabirds in February 1986 (Carter et al. 2003). This mortality included 6,287 common murres, 1,293 rhinoceros auklets (Cerorhinca monocerata), 180 small alcids, 12 marbled murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus), and 1,206 other birds (including loons, grebes, scoters, cormorants, shorebirds, and gulls; Siskin et al. 1993). The common murre colony at Devil’s Slide Rock was abandoned, certain subcolonies at the Castle Rocks and Mainland colony (near Point Sur) disappeared, and other central California breeding colonies were greatly reduced after the spill (Takekawa et al. 1990, Carter et al. 2001). The central California population currently represents the southernmost colonies for breeding common murres in the Pacific. The reductions of the geographic range, fragile condition of the central California population, and murre demographics increase the risk that future catastrophic events (e.g., oil spills, disease, predation, climate change) would result in extirpation of the central California common murre population.

Reference Ecosystem Description

Common murres are an important and visible part of the California seabird community (Carter et al. 1992). They are the most abundant nesting species and have the greatest biomass of all breeding seabirds in the state (Sowls et al. 1980, Ainley and Boekelheide 1990). Nearshore breeding colonies of common murres throughout central coastal California (Point Arena to Big Sur) decreased by about 60 percent between 1980 and 1986 (Takekawa et al. 1990). This population decline was attributed to high mortality from gill-net fishing, oil spills (including the 1986 Apex Houston spill), and a severe El Niño-Southern Oscillation event in 1982 and 1983 (Takekawa et al. 1990; Swartzman and Carter 1991; Carter et al. 1992, 2001). Fom 1980 through 1982, prior to this decline, there were close to 3,000 common murres breeding on Devil’s Slide Rock.

Project Goals

The goal of the CMRP was to restore common murres at historic breeding colonies in the areas where colonies were extirpated or severely depleted by the APEX HOUSTON oil spill. Given the depleted condition of the central California common murre population (Ainley and Boekelheide 1990; Takekawa et al. 1990; Carter et al. 1992, 2001,2003; Ainley and Lewis 1994), extirpated colonies were not likely to be reestablished without human assistance. The recolonization of abandoned common murre colonies in central California would aid in securing the common murre population and will spread the risk of future disasters among colony sites over a wider range of the California coast, subsequently decreasing the risk that future catastrophic events will result in extirpation of the central California population.


The project does not have a monitoring plan.


A trustee council, made up of representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), was established to review, select, and oversee implementation of restoration actions for natural resources injured by the spill. The USFWS’s San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex was chosen to lead the restoration efforts for common murres. A restoration plan was written and finalized in 1995 after substantial public review (Federal Register,Vol.60, No. 81 / April 27, 1995 / 20739-20749; attached File 3). The common murre restoration work is overseen by a trustee council and conducted cooperatively by USFWS, Humboldt State University, and the National Audubon Society with additional assistance from several other public and private institutions.

Description of Project Activities:
(1) Research and Planning Studies of seabird colonies in Maine demonstrated that recolonization can be achieved using social attraction (Kress 1978, Kress and Nettleship 1988, Kress et al. 1992). The use of decoys and tape recordings of bird calls attracted prospecting seabirds, which then bred, once a threshold group size was reached. These techniques have assisted in the recolonization of several colonial nesting seabird species (Podolsky 1985; Podolsky and Kress 1989, 1992) and have been utilized in an effort to recolonize common murres in Maine. Study results indicated that a combination of visual and sound stimuli are essential to attract common murres. In order to refine recolonization methods and evaluate their success, reference information was needed on the reproductive biology, behavior, and phenology of common murres at unmanipulated nearshore sites in the local area. However, little information was available from nearshore colonies in central California. Monitoring attendance patterns, arrival dates, reproductive success, and behavior of breeding and nonbreeding common murres at accessible colonies at Point Reyes and Big Sur provided comparisons to evaluate recolonization of Devil's Slide and San Pedro rocks. The large Point Reyes colony is the closest easily accessible colony to the recolonization sites (approximately 60 km distant). Monitoring of the Big Sur colonies (Castle Rocks, Mainland and Hurricane Point Rocks) also provided information to guide management decisions to restore those highly depleted colonies. The monitoring conducted at these unmanipulated colonies was used to assess recolonization responses and common murre activity patterns at recolonization sites, aiding in refinement of recolonization methods, and to assess potential restoration needs at other colonies. (2) Implementation Social attraction techniques similar to those used in Maine were used at Devil's Slide Rock (Lat 37.5773 Lon -122.5233) and San Pedro Rock (Lat 37.5953 Lon -122.5222) which are located approximately 1.8 km apart, and 0.25 and 0.1 km from the shoreline, respectively (See File 2, Google Earth perspective). Decoys, mirrors, and audio equipment were first placed on Devil's Slide Rock in January 1996 before the common murre breeding season. Four hundred sixty-eight life-size common murre decoys (including 384 adult, 48 egg, and 36 chick) were positioned on suitable nesting habitat on Devil's Slide Rock in a fashion that simulated an active murre colony (Parker et al. 2007). Four omni-directional weather resistant loudspeakers were positioned on the rock and recordings of common murre vocalizations were played prior to and throughout the breeding season, from January to August. Daily observations of the recolonization sites began once decoys had been deployed and continued until breeding activities ended in late July or early August and all chicks departed. Data collected on common murres included daily and seasonal attendance patterns, breeding phenology, breeding success, adult behavior, location on rock, diet or feeding behavior, and predation. Prospecting common murres were plotted by location on maps of the recolonization site. Aerial photographic censuses were conducted annually between May and June. The censuses were used to calculate annual breeding population sizes at the recolonization sites and nearby reference colonies, assess trends between years, and assist in determining numbers of common murres not visible from the mainland or boats. Following the breeding season, all decoys were removed from the rock for cleaning and repair, and the sound system was turned off. Each winter through 2005, decoys were redeployed on Devil's Slide Rock and the sound system was turned back on. The social attraction setup (numbers of decoys, etc.) was fairly consistent through 1998. Beginning in 1999, the numbers of decoys deployed each year decreased steadily, and mirrors were removed from areas where they were no longer needed. Following the 2005 season, social attraction was discontinued. On San Pedro Rock, a similar social attraction setup was installed in spring 1998. Social attraction was continued until 2004, when the devices were removed due to lack of murre activity. (3) Education and Outreach This restoration project provided unique opportunities to enhance public knowledge concerning seabirds, seabird conservation, and the marine environment. An extensive education program for local 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students was conducted from 1996 to 2005. This included a presentation about seabird adaptations, effects of gill nets, oil, and other pollution on seabirds and the marine environment, and the Devil's Slide restoration project. As a culmination to the project students repainted the murre decoys in preparation for redeployment. When remote-controlled video cameras were placed on the rock in 2005 through 2007, live-streaming video of the Devil's Slide Rock common murre colony was made accessible to the public for education and outreach through a live web cam and display at the Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel. Additional education and outreach was conducted through public presentations, news coverage, and a project web site. (4) Results. Common murres recolonized Devil's Slide Rock during the first season of social attraction efforts, with six breeding pairs. Numbers increased gradually thereafter, and the 10-year project goal of establishing 100 breeding pairs of murres was first reached in year 5 (2000). In 2005, after ten years of restoration activities and monitoring, the colony had exceeded this goal for six consecutive years. As an additional benefit, a new nesting area on the adjacent Devil's Slide mainland was first colonized in 2005. By 2007, the Devil's Slide Rock colony had grown to 394 breeding pairs, with an additional 50 pairs on the adjacent mainland. Other colonies in central California had also increased dramatically since the mid-1990s. San Pedro Rock attracted occasional visiting murres but was not recolonized. Monitoring data indicated that attendance patterns, behavior and reproduction of murres on Devil's Slide Rock was similar to reference colonies. However, colonies were affected annually by both anthropogenic and non-anthropogenic factors. Early monitoring efforts at the Big Sur colonies discovered that gill-net mortality in the nearby Monterey Bay and Morro Bay areas and disturbance from aircraft and boats were having an impact on the murres. Project personnel provided information about these impacts to state regulators which aided in their decision to impose stricter rules on the gill-net fishery. To address other human disturbances, the project used outreach and limited enforcement to notify aviators and boaters about the affect of their activities on the colonies and the laws protecting seabirds. Over time, these impacts to the Big Sur colonies were reduced dramatically.

Ecological Outcomes Achieved

Eliminate existing threats to the ecosystem:
On Devil's Slide Rock in 2004, 190 breeding pairs of common murres fledged 133 chicks. In 2005, 164 pairs produced 52 chicks. Social attractants have not been deployed since the 2005 breeding season as the murre population has reached a level where it appears to be self-sustaining. In 2007, after two years without social attraction, the colony had grown to almost 400 breeding pairs.

Factors limiting recovery of the ecosystem:
Both anthropogenic and non-anthropogenic disturbances influence the common murre colony's annual production. Oil spills remain a threat as the California coast is a main shipping route for the oil industry, and small spills occur often. Disturbance from aircraft and boats also has impacted colonies, especially at Big Sur and Devil's Slide (Rojek et al. 2007). At Devil's Slide, murres may be more likely to flush in response to low-flying aircraft and closely-approaching boats now that the decoys and audio equipment have been removed. Unfortunately, Devil's Slide Rock lies in the path of a local airport's approach and take-off. In recent years, there has been an increase in brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), an endangered species, roosting in the murre breeding areas. Some murres have abandoned breeding sites and lost eggs due to disturbances caused by these large birds. Global climate change may also influence the Devil's Slide Rock common murre colony in the future. Warming trends and El Niño-associated climate conditions are affecting foraging conditions. In addition, the rock is located on the southern end of the murre breeding range, where climatic change is more likely to have an impact as the birds are already living at the limits of their adaptive tolerance.

Socio-Economic & Community Outcomes Achieved

Economic vitality and local livelihoods:
The CMRP has provided a unique opportunity for local community involvement. Volunteers from various organizations have helped to deploy the social attraction equipment as well as help to clean and repaint the decoys each season. The project's current educational program, Webs Under Waves: Exploring Coastal Marine Life, explores the food webs of the central California coastal marine environment and teaches students about the San Francisco Bay and adjacent ocean habitats, the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, and Devil's Slide Rock, including adaptations of the common murre and what students can do to help protect the marine environment. The placement of remote video cameras on Devil's Slide Rock enabled students to observe and record data in a science journal of common murres and other seabird activity from the live web cam during the mating and breeding season. In addition, the "Murre Maniac" newsletter contains information on the murre colony at Devil's Slide Rock and how it fares during the breeding season. Major events such as first egg lay dates, numbers of eggs and chicks on the rock, and last chick fledge dates are discussed, as well as general seabird breeding behavior. Current data from the scientists' observations, such as numbers from bi-weekly colony population counts, are provided for teachers to pass on to students who keep track of how the bird population changes on the rock throughout the breeding season. A documentary film about the project, called "Returning Home: Bringing the Common Murre Back to Devil's Slide Rock," was produced by Full Frame Productions and released on VHF in 1999. A slightly revised version, produced in 2006 for the PBS series "Natural Heroes," was released on DVD, and has been shown at several environmental film festivals.

Key Lessons Learned

Researchers feel that the short time interval between colony extirpation and the initiation of restoration activities (about ten years) had a positive influence on the success of the project. Given the naturally long life span of common murres, the initial recolonizers likely were either hatched or had bred on the rock before the colony was abandoned (Parker et al. 2007). Within twenty-four hours after first deploying the social attraction devices, murres were utilizing Devil’s Slide Rock and six breeding pairs fledged three chicks in the first breeding season. The lack of recolonization of San Pedro Rock, which was extirpated early in the twentieth century, showed that success is not guaranteed even when habitat and conditions appear favorable. Comparisons between the two restoration sites will help guide future efforts.

Long-Term Management

Maintaining the geographic range and numbers of breeding common murres along the central California coastline decreases the risk that future catastrophic events will result in extirpation of central California populations. Since 2005, efforts have continued to monitor the status of Devil’s Slide Rock and other central California colonies, and conduct surveillance for human disturbance and other factors affecting population growth, with funds from the Command Oil Spill Restoration Plan. In the event of subsequent catastrophic events, recolonization activities could be implemented where indicated.

Sources and Amounts of Funding

4.9 million USD U.S. Department of Justice Consent Decree

Other Resources

Ainley, and T.J. Lewis. 1974. The history of Farallon Island marine bird populations, 1854 – 1972. Condor 76:432 – 446.

Ainley, D.G. and R.J. Boekelheide, editors. 1990. Seabirds of the Farallon Islands: Ecology, dynamics, and structure of an upwelling-system community. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California. 450 pages.

Carter, H. R., V. A. Lee, G. W. Page, M. W. Parker, R. G. Ford, G. Swartzman, S. W. Kress, B. R. Siskin, S. W. Singer and D. M. Fry. 2003. The 1986 Apex Houston oil spill in central California: seabird injury assessments and litigation process. Marine Ornithology 31:9-19.

Carter, H. R., U. W. Wilson, R. W. Lowe, M. S. Rodway, D. A. Manuwal, J. E. Takekawa, and J. L. Yee. 2001. Population trends of the Common Murre (Uria aalge californica). Pages 33-132 in Biology and Conservation of the Common Murre in California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Volume 1: Natural History and Population Trends (D.A. Manuwal, H.R. Carter, T.S. Zimmerman, and D.L. Orthmeyer, Eds.). U.S. Geological Survey, Information and Technology Report USGS/BRD/ITR-2000-0012, Washington, D.C.

Carter, H.R., G.J. McChesney, D.L. Jaques, C.S. Strong, M.W. Parker, J.E. Takekawa, D.L. Jory, and D.L. Whitworth. 1992. Breeding populations of seabirds in California, 1989 – 1991. Unpublished reports, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Dixon, California.

Forney, K. A., S. R. Benson, and G. Cameron. 2001. Central California effort and bycatch of sensitive species, , 1990-98. Pages 141-160 in (E. F. Melvin and J. K. Parrish, eds.), Seabird Bycatch: Trends, Roadblocks, and Solutions. University of Alaska Sea Grant, AK-SG-01-01, Fairbanks.

Kress, S.W. 1978. Establishing Atlantic Puffins at a former breeding site. Pp. 373 – 377 in S.A. Temple (ed.). Endangered birds: management techniques for preserving threatened species. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin.

Kress, S.W. 1983. The use of decoys, sound recordings, and gull control for reestablishing a tern colony in Maine. J. Field Ornith. 59(2):161 – 170.

Kress, S.W. and D.N. Nettleship. 1988. Reestablishment of Atlantic Puffins, Fratercula artica, at a former breeding site in the Gulf of Maine. Colonial Waterbirds 6:185 – 196.

Kress, S.W., D.N. Nettleship, and R.H. Podolsky. 1992. Reintroduction of Atlantic Puffins, Terns, and Leach’s Storm-Petrels at former breeding sites in the Gulf of Maine in B.D. Bell and J. Kromdeur (editors). Management methods for populations of threatened birds. ICBP Technical Publication. Cambridge, England.

Parker, M. W., S. W. Kress, R. T. Golightly, H. R. Carter, E. B. Parsons, S. E. Schubel, J. A. Boyce, G. J. McChesney and S. M. Wisely. 2007. Assessment of social attraction techniques used to restore a Common Murre colony in central California. Waterbirds 30: 17-28.

Podolsky, R.H. 1985. Colony formation and attraction of the Laysan Albatross and Leach’s Storm-Petrel. Ph.D. dissertation. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan.

Podolsky, R.H. and S.W. Kress. 1989. Factors affecting colony formation in Leach’s Storm-Petrel. Auk 106(2):332 – 336.

Podolsky, R.H. and S.W. Kress. 1992. Attraction of the endangered dark-rumped petrel to recorded vocalizations in the Galapagos Islands. Condor 94:448 – 453.

Rojek, N.A., M.W. Parker, H.R. Carter, and G.J. McChesney. 2007. Aircraft and vessel disturbances to Common Murres Uria aalge at breeding colonies in central California, 1997-1999. Marine Ornithology 35: 61-69.

Siskin, B.R., G.W. Page, and H.R. Carter. 1993. Impacts of the 1986 APEX HOUSTON oil spill on marine birds in central California. Unpublished report, U.S. Department of Justice.

Sowls, A.L., A.R. Degange, J.W. Nelson, and G.S. Lester. 1980. Catalog of California seabird colonies. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildl. Serv., Biol. Serv. Prog. FWS/OBS 37/80.

Swartzman, G. and H.R. Carter. 1991. Response of the California population of Common Murres (Uria aalge) to mortality from the 1986 APEX HOUSTON oil spill. Unpublished report, U.S. Department of Justice.

Takekawa, J.E., H.R. Carter, and T.E. Harvey. 1990. Decline of the Common Murre in Central California 1980 – 1986. Studies in Avian Biology 14:149 – 163.

Primary Project Manager and Contact

Janet Whitlock
Natural Resources Damage Assessment
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
2800 Cottage Way, Room E-1803
Sacramento, CA 95825
(916) 414-6591


Program Trustees:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Common Murre Restoration Project, Monitoring Reports and Murre Maniac newsletter

California Department of Fish and Game, Office of Spill Prevention and Response

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Damage Assessment, Remediation and Restoration Program (Includes Consent Decree and Agreements, United States v. Apex Oil Co.)

Additional Informative Links

Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association

“Returning Home” 25 min documentary video on common murre restoration

“Murre Mystery” documents declines of common murre prey during recent breeding seasons

Submitted to GRN By:

Robin Tillitt
USGS Columbia Environmental Research Center
4200 New Haven Road
Columbia, MO 65201
(573) 875-2981

Primary Contact

Organizational Contact