During a boat ride, a community resident had observed dead seagulls and other seabirds. The amount she had seen was countless and some of the birds were acting weird, sick, and weak, too weak to fly and too weak to run. The death of these birds could affect the other sea animals, and then there would be a huge die-off of all the other sea animals. We live right by the ocean and rely on these animals for subsistence.
Here is a very brief report on what has been investigated thus far on the seabird mortalities in and around Southern AK all summer. Feel free to share with those in Native communities as you see needed and I am more than happy to discuss with you as needed. Since May 2015, the USGS National Wildlife Health Center has been assisting the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Region 7 Migratory Bird and Refuge Management offices, several USFWS refuges, National Park Service (NPS), and Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) with multiple seabird mortality investigations located along the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean coastal areas of the Aleutian Islands East, Kodiak Island, Kenai Peninsula, and Prince William Sound. Estimates on the size and scope of these events have ranged from a few birds (~5-10) to >100 birds being found at one time and location. The primary avian species being reported to date include murres (common and thick-billed), sooty shearwaters, black-legged kittiwakes, horned puffins, and glaucous winged gulls. Some of these mortalities have been occurring concurrently with significant whale, pinniped, walrus, and fish mortalities throughout the summer. As of September 17, 2015, the USGS National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) has received multiple carcasses from USFWS, NPS, and ADF&G for diagnostic examination to determine the cause of morbidity and mortality. Diagnostic investigations have been challenging due to remoteness of the area and/or lack of suitable carcasses from some affected areas.
The primary diagnostic finding for specimens received at NWHC for examinations has been emaciation in juvenile and adult birds; a few individuals have also had mild to moderate intestinal parasites. All birds examined have tested negative for highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses and pathogenic bacteria such as Pasteurella multocida. At this time there is no evidence of underlying disease. The cause(s) of the emaciation are still being pursued as there are many things, including simple lack of adequate food, heavy parasite loads, injury, chronic exposure to toxins such as lead and other contaminants, etc. Some diagnostic tests are still in progress including algal toxin analysis, which can take a couple of weeks to get back since we do not currently test for this in-house. From the reports I have received from the field biologists, it appears the bird mortalities have subsided around the Aleutians East (Izembek), Kenai Peninsula and other areas along the Alaska Peninsula/Kodiak Island. If anyone has additional reports of recently dead or sick seabirds please feel free to pass them on to Kathy Kuletz or me as we may be interested in receiving a few carcasses for evaluation if they are in good post-mortem condition. Attached is the case tracking map I had pulled together at the height of these reports (August) and the cases we have received here.
Julia Parrish, Executive Director at Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), writes: (2015-09-21)
In 2015, seabirds and marine mammals from Wingham Island to Adak have washed ashore sick and dying. Unusually high counts of common murres were recorded even before breeding started at several points along the coastline. By August, elevated counts of murres had been recorded throughout Alaska and the lower 48 West Coast. Is there a connection? For the last two years, the surface waters in the North Pacific have been warmer than normal. This so-called “blob” has been associated with shifts in the marine foodweb, drastic changes in the feeding habitat of seabirds, and the incidence of harmful algal blooms throughout the North Pacific. With a predicted El Niño event on the horizon, a second warmer winter may further stress the marine ecosystem.
Comments from LEO Editors:
This is a trending topic, which could include bird die-off events from other locations, as well as other types of wildlife die-off and illness events. LEO Network is currently developing broad-scale and cross-category systems for tracking trends, such as the marine life die-offs, which have occurred in South and Wst Alaska this summer.