USA: California: Marbled Murrelet Restoration and Corvid Management Project/ Marbled Murrelet Land Acquisition and Enhancement Project, Central California Coast, USA

The area effected by the oil spill; Credit: California Department of Fish and Wildlife
An adult marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus); Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service


On the evening of September 26th, 1998, the marine vessel, M/V Command, illegally spilled an estimated 3,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil while in transit from San Francisco to Panama. The relatively small spill occurred at a time when high numbers of seabirds were in the vicinity with their young, resulting in significant injury of seabirds and other aquatic life. The spill affected the shoreline throughout San Mateo County with tarballs washing up as far south as the Salinas River. Approximately 1500 seabirds were killed, including an estimated 6-12 marbled murrelets, Brachyramphus marmoratus, (Boyce & Hampton 2002).

Restoration funds were recovered from the responsible party under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), the Oil Pollution Act (OPA), the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA), and other state law. A trustee council made up of five representative agencies, with lead roles designated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the California Department of Parks and Recreation (CDPR), was established in order to assist in the design, implementation, permitting, monitoring, and oversight of restoration projects. The goal of these projects was to return injured natural resources to baseline conditions and if possible, compensate for the value of resources lost during the recovery period. A comprehensive restoration plan was developed and several seabird restoration and lost human use projects were implemented. This particular case study focuses on two projects benefitting the marbled murrelet, the Marbled Murrelet Restoration and Corvid Management Project (CMP) and the Marbled Murrelet Restoration Land Acquisition and Enhancement Project (LAEP).

The CMP began in 2004 with the objective to increase murrelet population numbers by protecting their nesting habitat within the old-growth coniferous forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Santa Cruz murrelets are a declining population of about 500 birds, and are thought to be the most endangered population of marbled murrelets on the North American West Coast. In addition to habitat protection, efforts to discourage corvids (specifically, Steller’s jays and common ravens) from predation of marbled murrelet eggs were instituted and have focused on reducing access to human food waste. California State Parks have implemented a public awareness campaign to educate state and county park visitors on the importance of proper food storage and waste disposal. They have also installed covered food waste receptacles and food storage lockers at the parks.

Corvid and marbled murrelet populations were monitored in order to establish initial population numbers, gauge program effectiveness, and guide continuing efforts at corvid abatement. Corvid numbers in targeted areas have undergone a continuous and dramatic decline since the project was initiated. Despite these reductions, murrelet numbers continued to decline at historic rates, and the Santa Cruz Mountain population was in danger of local extirpation in 2009. However, as restoration efforts continued, stable trends in marbled murrelet numbers have been observed. Today, the corvid management project continues with funds from the Luckenbach oil spill and the Cosco Busan oil spill Trustee Councils.

Additional restoration efforts include the Marbled Murrelet Restoration Land Acquisition and Enhancement Project, which focused on protecting nesting habitat. Settlement funds were used to purchase the Girl Scout Creek Property, an 80-acre forest within the Santa Cruz Mountains. This land was acquired in 2006 for the purpose of protection from development, and continues to show marbled murrelet presence each year (2007-2009), with possible nesting in 2007. The property is managed and maintained by Butano State Park.

Quick Facts

Project Location:
San Mateo, CA, USA, 37.5629917, -122.3255254

Geographic Region:
North America

Country or Territory:
United States of America



Area being restored:
6,577 Square miles of Pacific Ocean

Project Lead:
Robin Tillitt

Organization Type:
Governmental Body

Project Partners:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and California Department of Parks and Recreation (CDPR)


Project Stage:

Start Date:

End Date:

Primary Causes of Degradation

Contamination (biological, chemical, physical or radiological)

Degradation Description

On September 26th, 1998, the M/V Command departed the San Francisco Bay along a southbound shipping lane when it discharged 3,000 gallons of IBF 380, also known as No. 6 fuel oil, into the ocean. Due to light winds and fair weather, the oil remained within the vicinity of the shipping lane, but began washing ashore within four days in the form of oily tarballs and tar patties. The affected area included 15 miles of beaches, primarily south of San Francisco in San Mateo County, reaching as far south as the Salinas River in Monterey County. The impact of the relatively small spill was amplified by the delay in its discovery and by occurring at a time when large numbers of seabirds typically assemble on the open ocean with their young to feed. 1500 seabirds in total were estimated to be killed. 171 birds were recovered by oil spill response workers. Most recovered birds suffered fatal injury including 11 sooty shearwaters, 6 brown pelicans, and 99 common murres. The Trustees employed mathematical modeling in determining the number of marbled murrelets likely at risk. Taking into account aerial survey monitoring at the time of the spill, the amount of shoreline inaccessible to searchers, and historical known oil spill mortality data, an estimated 6-12 marbled murrelets were killed, with 87 placed at risk (Boyce and Hampton 2002). At that time the affected local population was thought to have already been in a state of continuous decline since the early 1990’s due to a several factors including contaminants, predation, habitat loss, and availability of prey (Beissinger and Nur 1997). It was thought that without intervention, extinction could occur within 25 years (Beissinger and Nur 1997).

Reference Ecosystem Description

Marbled murrelets of Central California are an integral member of a larger seabird community and are unique among seabirds in that their nesting habitat is located up to 20 miles inland, located in old growth coniferous forests, typically in stands of 100 acres or greater (Nelson 1997). The local population nesting within the Santa Cruz Mountains, an isolated population of approximately 500 birds, had been slowly declining from a number of factors including nest predation by corvids including Steller’s jays and common ravens (Peery et al. 2002, 2004). Historically, 95% habitat destruction of old growth redwood forests in the area through logging activities was a source of population decline, though most remaining old growth coniferous forests are now protected inside California parks. Marbled murrelets are listed as Threatened by the U.S. Government per the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Endangered by the State of California. The estimated world population is 263,000 to 841,000 individuals (Nelson 1997). However, population estimates for the listed population (i.e., Washington, Oregon and California) are less than 20,000, including fewer than 500 in the Santa Cruz Mountains (USFWS 2009).

Project Goals

In accordance with OPA (15 C.F.R., Part 990), the overall goal of restoration is to address the impacts to natural resources from injury by returning them to their pre-spill (baseline) conditions, as well as to compensate for interim losses of resources. Given that the marbled murrelet population of the Santa Cruz Mountains is a small, isolated population, with dwindling numbers, it was determined the population was not likely to be reestablished without human assistance (Peery et al. 2002, 2004). This restoration was implemented through a combination of habitat protection and predator abatement measures. The long-term goal is to protect and insulate marbled murrelets of Central California from local extirpation.


The project does not have a monitoring plan.


A trustee council made up of five representative agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), the California Department of Parks and Recreation (CDPR), and the California State Lands Commission (CSLC) was established in order to oversee the design, selection, implementation, and oversight of restoration projects. The California Department of Parks and Recreation (CDPR) assumed a primary role in projects involving marbled murrelet restoration. A final version of the restoration plan and environmental assessment was released in June 2004, following public comment and review (Appendix A, USFWS 2004). Restoration work, with oversight by the Trustees, has been carried out through the CDPR under the direction of a project manager, in partnership with state and county parks of the Santa Cruz Mountains and with assistance from additional public and private institutions.

Description of Project Activities:

Research and Planning
Predation by corvids was considered by experts to be one of the greatest threats to the Santa Cruz murrelet population. This was based upon several factors: corvids had moved into the Santa Cruz Mountains attracted by human food waste left accessible at parks and campgrounds; several parks (Butano State Park, Pescadero Creek County Park, Big Basin State Park, Portola State Park and Memorial County Park) are located near murrelet nesting habitat; and predation by corvids on other species had been observed and documented (Boarman 2002). Studies had shown that limiting accessible human food waste in parks to be a successful technique of natural predator abatement. Reducing corvid numbers through proper waste management was considered a strategy that could potentially mitigate murrelet population declines with a reasonable expectation of success.

Acquisition of private lands known to contain murrelet nesting habitat for proper conservation management and stewardship was a proven strategy of protecting bird habitat. Additionally, as younger stands of conifer on these lands mature, murrelet nesting habitat will expand. Past efforts of murrelet protection has focused primarily on acquisition. The addition of corvid management further increased the likelihood of success in protecting the murrelet population (Hampton, pers. com.).

In order to develop and refine a successful murrelet restoration strategy, it was necessary to monitor murrelet as well as corvid numbers. Local information was needed regarding corvids including bird frequency within target areas, reference information from control sites, and observation of flight behavior. Monitoring of marbled murrelets, which poses challenges due to their small size and inherently reclusive nature, was done with a combination of surveying techniques. The primary means consisted of audio-visual surveys, which took place throughout areas of interest within the parks in order to monitor trends in bird population as well as nesting behavior over time. The audio-visual surveys were supplemented with periodic at-sea surveys, which are useful in determining overall population numbers. As a third measure, radar surveys were conducted throughout the five relevant parks, to provide a more complete picture of murrelet activity including flight behavior. At-sea surveys included monitoring for juvenile birds. Combined, these monitoring reports were used to guide management decisions in restoring the depleted population.

In the late summer of 2003, work commenced in pre-implementation monitoring of sites for the purpose of gauging both corvid and murrelet numbers in order to establish baseline data. These efforts represented a continuation of marbled murrelet population data collection dating back to 1988 (Shaw 2011). In 2004 the Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan was finalized and efforts at corvid management began to be implemented, first in state parks and later in county parks. A project manager was identified and education/outreach materials were developed, including brochures and signs, which were distributed as staff began the work of educating park visitors. In 2005, focused efforts were made to have most project elements in place prior to the commencement of the local camping season. By Memorial Day, state parks had augmented trained seasonal staff, signs were installed on picnic tables with other educational materials in place, limited removal of ravens was underway, and some covered trash receptacles were installed. For the remainder of 2005 and throughout 2006 implementation continued. Efforts included: further installation of garbage protection, the selective removal of 24 ravens from campground sites, and park-wide education/awareness campaign efforts, with new materials, camper surveys, and completion of an educational outreach video to be shown at two visitor centers. In 2007 the video presentation was installed, the refitting of approximately 40 dumpsters at Big Basin Redwoods State Park with animal-proof lids was finished, and the installation of a shed to protect and cover a local garbage storage and transportation truck was completed. After a period of delay, the replacement of approximately 90 uncovered trash cans with covered receptacles in Memorial County Park was completed as well.

On March 20th, 2006, escrow closed on the Girl Scout Creek Property which became part of Butano State Park. Beginning in 2007 and continuing to date, a management plan was developed and audio-visual surveys were conducted on the property to monitor murrelet numbers, presence of juveniles, and nesting behaviors. M/V Command funds have been fully expended and these activities continue with funds from other oil spill trustee counsels.

In addition to surveys at the 80-acre parcel, monitoring of both corvids and murrelets was done throughout state and county parks, as well as at-sea surveys for murrelets. Surveys were used to estimate population numbers, assess trends between years, and assist in determining juvenile ratios which is the estimate of productivity commonly used to index reproductive success in marbled murrelets. Beginning in 2004, corvid numbers were monitored annually as project elements were implemented. Monitoring was conducted monthly May through August at four camping areas and at several reference sites located away from camp sites for comparison. Monitoring of marbled murrelets within the Big Basin, Portola, and Butano State Parks as well as Memorial County Park, was done in a similar fashion from 2004-2011, taking surveys at 11 established bird monitoring stations near campgrounds multiple times over the breeding season (Shaw 2011). In addition to audio-visual surveys of murrelets, aerial at-sea photographic censuses were conducted in order to determine and assess trends of overall numbers of marbled murrelets and juvenile ratios. Finally, radar monitoring, which had originally begun in 1999 and continued through 2009, was conducted within the five watersheds of the Santa Cruz Mountains to gain supplemental information regarding nesting murrelet numbers and inland flight patterns.

Following these efforts a period of adaptive management began, and throughout 2007-2010 education efforts were renewed at Big Basin, Butano, and Portola State Parks, as well as Memorial County Park. Food locker and dumpster improvements were made at Memorial County Park, garbage collection at Big Basin Park was improved and some food lockers were installed in state parks, along with a more focused removal of ravens.

In 2011, with Command Trustee Council funds 99% expended, the Corvid Management Project continued with funds from both the Luckenbach Trustee Council and in 2013, from the Cosco Busan Trustee Council. Under Luckenbach funding, 240 new food lockers were added to Big Basin Redwoods and Butano State Parks, as well as Memorial County Park in 2011. Through further research, it was found that certain types of signs and messaging had greater effectiveness, and a renewed “Crumb Clean” campaign was initiated.

Additionally, in 2009, amidst concerns from experts that the local murrelet population may still be in decline, funding began for research by Humboldt State University involving “conditioned taste aversion”, or CTA. CTA involves the placement of decoy murrelet eggs injected with a tasteless, odorless chemical that induces discomfort and/or vomiting after ingestion by corvids. After encouraging preliminary results supporting decreases in corvid predation on decoy eggs, CTA was implemented in the parks through funding from the Cosco Busan Trustee Council, and continues to date. These efforts began in Portola and Butano State Parks with the deployment of 550 decoy eggs, showing a 37-72% reduction in attacks on murrelet-mimic eggs compared to control eggs (Gabriel and Golightly 2011). CTA has continued in Portola and Butano State Parks, and has recently begun in Big Basin State Park as well as Memorial County Park.

In 2013, a lawsuit was filed against the California Department of Parks and Recreation by the Center for Biological Diversity, challenging the adequacy of Big Basin State Park’s new management plan in adequately protecting the marbled murrelet under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). In 2014 a settlement was reached in which further protections will be afforded after Trustee Council funding is completely expended within Big Basin, Butano, and Portola State Parks. These protections include additional improvements to trash management, continued public outreach, along with continued monitoring and a comprehensive assessment every three years. The settlement stipulates that further action will be taken should murrelet numbers continue to decline.

Education and Outreach
The Corvid Management and Restoration Project has provided many unique opportunities to enhance public knowledge and raise awareness of the threat to the local marbled murrelet population. Roving “crumb patrols” and a “Crumb Clean” campaign have created opportunities for sharing information with visitors. A short video was developed with cooperation between Big Basin and Butano State Parks to educate the public. Viewing the video is now a requirement for park visitors. Other materials have included brochures developed for campers and picnickers along with signs installed throughout the park, including on picnic tables, trash disposal areas, and in bathrooms. Further education took place through public presentations, news coverage, and park web sites.

The primary marker of success for the Corvid Management Project has been declining numbers of corvids within campground areas in comparison to control sites. In this regard, eleven years of continuous efforts have demonstrated positive outcomes. Initial results of annual surveys in 2006 following the first year of full project implementation showed that numbers of corvids and jays throughout areas of human use had dropped dramatically, a trend that has consistently continued over time. In a 2013 survey of Stellar’s jays, a maximum average number of jays per hectare of 1.43 or lower was documented.  This reflects a decline in jay numbers which ranged from 4.4 per hectare in Portola State Park to as high as 14.2 per hectare in Memorial County Park in 2003.

At-sea surveys of the marbled murrelet conducted in 2007 uncovered a concerning decline in murrelet population and unchanged juvenile ratios compared to 2003 survey results. A five year review of the species found that despite abatement efforts, the Santa Cruz Mountain population was continuing to experience near-zero reproduction and was declining at a rate of about 15 percent per year, consistent with the annual adult mortality rate (USFWS 2009). Amidst concerns, a panel of marbled murrelet experts was convened in 2009, and renewed corvid abatement efforts were set in place, including implementation of the conditioned taste aversion studies. These renewed efforts have been followed by encouraging results. Two juveniles were detected in 2009, and for 2010 and 2011, juvenile rates of .074 and .091 were documented.  These values reflect about seven to nine juveniles per one hundred pairs of adult birds, the highest numbers to be recorded. While juvenile ratios nearer to 0.2 or higher would be considered ideal as an indicator of stability, surveying continues to demonstrate increased population numbers through at-sea surveys, as well as increased attendance patterns within the nesting habitat of state and county parks.

Additionally, under the Land Acquisition Project, monitoring has continued to detect marbled Mmurrelet activity within the Girl Scout Creek Property, with possible nesting behavior recorded in 2007.

Ecological Outcomes Achieved

Eliminate existing threats to the ecosystem:

The Santa Cruz marbled murrelet population in 2003 was found to be 699 birds with a juvenile ratio of .049, and a total average number of detections across State Parks at 84.8 birds. In 2008, population numbers had declined to 168 with a juvenile ratio of 0.00 and an average total number of detections to reach a low of 20.4 in 2009. With some fluctuation in numbers thought to be attributable to possible source sinking of birds to other locations outside the range of the survey, or immigration from northern populations, numbers have since continued to reflect an overall steady trend of improvement, with populations as of 2014 numbering 437, a juvenile ratio of .081, and average total detections of 124.3. While encouraging, it is thought that a juvenile ratio of near .20 or higher is needed to provide a strong indicator of population sustainability (Hampton, per. com.).

Factors limiting recovery of the ecosystem:

The Central California marbled murrelet population stability is thought to be affected by a range of anthropogenic and non-anthropogenic factors. Small oil spills continue to occur in major oil shipping routes throughout the California coast.

Raptors including owls and hawks, natural predators of the murrelet, continue to be detected in small numbers in surveys of the Santa Cruz Mountains. While efforts show dramatic corvid declines in camp sites, jays and ravens continue to be attracted to the area due to the abundance of local food sources nearly surrounding the Santa Cruz Mountains, including Ox Mountain landfill near Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz County landfill, and nearby agricultural fields along the coast.

While past logging of murrelet habitat has contributed to reduced habitat and population declines, there are enough areas of protected habitat on Federal and State lands to effectively protect murrelet habitat, with significant stands maturing into old growth forest over the next 50-100 years to provide a substantially increased nesting potential, although seasonal wildfires remain a threat to forests of Central California.

Global climate change may impact future populations of marbled murrelets in the region, with warming trends and ocean conditions associated with El Niño affecting foraging conditions, including algal blooms, fishery depletion, and/or fishery migrations. 

Socio-Economic & Community Outcomes Achieved

Economic vitality and local livelihoods:

The Marbled Murrelet and Corvid Management Project created a unique opportunity for local community involvement. Volunteers from various organizations have helped to spread the message of corvid management and the importance of maintaining balance within the ecosystem, including the food webs of the central California coastal marine environment as well as the coniferous forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Beginning in 2005, roving “crumb patrols” have traversed parks, including groups of Boy Scouts delivering “report cards” to visitors on site cleanliness. A campfire program including a skit with audience participation and puppets began, encouraging campers and picnickers to do their part. The project’s “Crumb Clean” campaign has imparted visitors to State and County Parks in the Central California area of an increased awareness of their potential human impact, positive or negative, on the environment.

Key Lessons Learned

Trustees have found continued corvid management efforts at limiting human food access to be highly successful in dramatically reducing local populations of Stellar’s jay. However, continued decreases in murrelet numbers until 2008 and into 2009 have demonstrated that garbage protection, limited raven removal, and education efforts alone may not be sufficient to guarantee the success of the murrelet population. Researchers at Humboldt State University have found success in conditioned taste aversion (CTA) studies, which are demonstrating a seasonal decrease in the number of predated decoy eggs after CTA deployments. Further efforts, time, and monitoring will be necessary in order to gauge ultimate project success in stabilizing the population.

Sources and Amounts of Funding

Marbled Murrelet Land Acquisition and Enhancement Project, Command Trustee Council: $423,000

Marbled Murrelet Restoration and Corvid Management Project:

Command Trustee Council: $1,104,205
Cosco Busan Trustee Council: $371,340
Luckenbach Trustee Council: $694,006

Funding Units: USD

Funding Description: U.S. Department of Justice Consent Decree

Other Resources

Beissinger, S.R. and N. Nur. 1997. Population trends of the marbled murrelet projected from demographic analysis. In Recovery plan for the threatened marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) in Washington, Oregon, and California, Appendix B. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1997. Portland, Oregon. 203pp.

Boarman, W.I. 2002. Reducing predation by common ravens on desert tortoises in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Geological Survey, Western Ecological Research Center. San Diego, California.

Boyce, J. and S. Hampton. 2002. Command bird injury report. Prepared for the Command Trustee Council. May 14, 2002.

Gabriel, P.A. and R.T. Golightly. 2011. Experiment of assessment of taste aversion conditioning on Steller’s Jays to provide potential short-term improvements of nest survival of Marbled Murrelets in Northern California. Report to National Park Service.

Nelson, S.K. 1997. Marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus). In A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds. The Birds of North America, No. 313. The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.

Peery, M.Z., S.R. Beissinger, B.H. Becker, and S.H. Newman. 2002. Marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) Demography in Central California: 2001 Progress Report. Prepared for the California Department of Fish and Game, US Fish and Wildlife Service, California State Parks.

Peery, M.Z., S.R. Beissinger, S.H. Newman, E.B. Burkett, T.D. Williams. 2004. Applying the declining population paradigm: Diagnosing causes of poor reproduction in the marbled murrelet.

Shaw, B. 2011. Summary of 2011 Marbled Murrelet monitoring surveys in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Prepared for the Department of Parks and Recreation Santa Cruz District. Klamath Wildlife Resources. Redding, California.

Suddjian, D.L. 2003a. Summary of 2002 Marbled murrelet monitoring surveys at Big Basin and Portola State Parks. Prepared for the California Department of Fish and Game. David L. Suddjian Biological Consulting Services. Capitola, California.

USFWS. 2004. Command Oil Spill Final Restoration Plan and Environmental Assessment. June, 2004.

Primary Project Manager and Contact

Steve Hampton, Ph.D.
Resource Economist
Office of Spill Prevention and Response
California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife
(formerly known as California Dept. of Fish and Game)
PO Box 944209
Sacramento, CA 94244-2090
phone (916) 323-4724
fax(916) 324-8829


Program Trustees

California Department of Parks and Recreation: Big Basin State Park

California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Command Oil Spill newsletters, bird surveys, reports

California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oil Spill newsletters including Luckenbach and Cosco Busan

US Department of Interior USGS Natural Resource Damage Assessment & Restoration Program, case documents

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Office of Response & Restoration, meeting minutes, case documents

US Fish & Wildlife Service, information and video presentations

Additional Informative Links:

Humboldt State University, conditioned taste aversion studies

Live Science, article

Primary Contact

Organizational Contact