Dedicated to the study and conservation of Pacific Seabirds and their environment.

Interview with a PSG Student Member

Beth Phillips, PhD Candidate, University of Washington

Beth Phillips, PhD Candidate, University of Washington

How did you first hear about PSG?

Through members of the 2007 PSG local organizing committee hosting the meeting at Asilomar, California.

So you’re a recent transplant to Washington?

Actually, I grew up in Tacoma, Washington!  But my path to UW wasn’t exactly linear. I was at Moss Landing Marine Labs in California getting my MS, studying Harbor Seal diet (poop). I finished and started working with the BeachCOMBERS program through the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and San Jose State University. So, I guess you could say I moved from poop to dead birds. Well, I got to work with some live birds, too. This evolved into a contract position at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center where I helped study avian predation on juvenile salmon, and also collected fisheries acoustics data on distributions of forage fish around the Columbia River plume. There were so many unanswered questions surrounding avian predators and prey near the plume – I came to the University of Washington to learn how to analyze fisheries acoustic data and gain the skills to help answer some of those questions.

Wait, so you’re also a seabird convert?

Yep, an enthusiastic convert. Actually, after I graduated from high school all I wanted to do was study the ocean – the topic and species didn’t matter as long as it was on or under the water, and (most) seabirds can do both!  Once I learned more about how amazing seabirds were, I was all in.

You study both fish and birds?Interview with a PSG Student Member

Yep.  I’m at the interface of fisheries and seabird ecology, I guess.  Sometimes I don’t feel like I fit in in either world!  But I really enjoy studying both.  What I’m interested in is the fact that juvenile salmon experience really high mortality – up to 95% mortality – just as they leave the river and enter the ocean. We want to know: are seabirds contributing to this? And, can forage fish mediate impacts?  The answer: it probably depends on the year. When there’s low river flow and a small plume (like during recent drought conditions) seabirds appear to concentrate in the plume  – regardless of whether there are fish there or elsewhere.  They seem to cue to the plume itself, which can fuel a lot of primary production, and then look for prey.  If there are more forage fish that juvenile salmon in the plume, seabird predation on smolts may be buffered.

When you say seabirds concentrate in the plume, how many birds are we talking about?

I’m specifically looking at sooty shearwaters (Puffinus griseus) and common murres (Uria aalge). Lots! My estimates are about 130,000 murres and maybe a million sooty shearwaters near the plume.

What about the fish? How do you measure those?

I use both acoustic data and net samples, collected aboard six NOAA surveys – each survey produces about 20GB of acoustic data, and those six surveys covered 1500 kilometers, paired with 18,000 bird sightings.

Wow, after all that don’t you just want to take a nap?

Combine that with being the mother of a toddler boy, and the answer is usually yes!  Quantitative ecology, big datasets, modeling, and coding are challenging, but this field changes fast – I’m glad I’m learning it now.

So where do you want to take your degree?

First I need to finish it – I’m getting close!  I would like to return to NOAA to work as a Research Scientist, using my skills to explore patterns and models of upper trophic level organism distributions, relationships to their changing environment, and applications to ecosystem-based management. I’d like to balance that with a healthy dose of field work and outreach, education, and mentoring opportunities.

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Marine Ornithology

Marine Ornithology is an open access journal that is published through a partnership of the African Seabird Group, Australasian Seabird Group, Dutch Seabird Group, Japanese Seabird Group, The Seabird Group (UK), and Pacific Seabird Group.
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