Dead seabirds are being found washed ashore in Alaska; here's why

Photo of the 2015-2016 murre dieoff.
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Seabirds in the state are washing up on beaches once again, this time in Western Alaska, in numbers estimated to be in the thousands.

The reason why they're dying has been determined, but the true cause behind the die-off has scientists investigating further into the pattern.

"The results come back pretty quickly. Currently, they determined the cause of death appears to be due to emaciation, starvation."

That's Robb Kaler, a wildlife biologist at USFWS’s Migratory Bird office in Anchorage. He said one of the birds has been sent in and tested, and another six are on the way.

While labs and scientists can see the cause of death due to a number of contributing physical factors, how they got that way is another question; one that experts don't yet have the definitive answer to.

"There's probably multiple factors at play. You've got birds that are starving, so we know why they're dying, they're dying of starvation," Kaler said. "But the question is, why are they not able to find food? What's happening?"

The birds themselves are the common murre, which resemble thin penguins. The common murre is a seabird found in subarctic waters, living much of its life out in open water along the North Pacific and North Atlantic.

The murre were the focus of a massive mortality event in 2015 and into 2016, where at least 30,000 were found dead. Scientists at the time estimated the total dead numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

While the 2015 die-off had a lot to do with weather and storm events, the one this year, starting in May and stretching well into June, has scientists and residents observing similarities, especially warming waters.

Kaler said that neurotoxin poisoning from algal blooms could travel up the food chain, from plankton on up and into the birds' diets.

But it's also more nuanced than that, because what's then causing the harmful algal blooms to flourish is another domino in the line leading to dead birds.

"If you have sea surface temperatures that lend themselves to the algal blooms, if those temperatures are high enough," Kaler said, "Then you have a warm body of water, and there's a stagnation in that water column. That's going to effect everything that's feeding in the ocean."

Kaler said what scientists need now is more testing, and more birds. The sample birds for a useful necropsy need to be freshly deceased in order for the studies to be effective into what's really behind their starvation.

Birds this year have been found from Shishmaref to Unalakleet and on St. Lawrence Island and the surrounding waters and shorelines.

Residents finding large dead seabirds in those areas, or really any areas, are encouraged by scientists to contact U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s dead seabird hotline at (866) 527-3358.

The more data is gathered, the more researchers will know about how this trend is happening and what it will mean not only for murres, but for all sea life and those affected by it, including us humans.



 
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