Rural Alaska

Emaciated seabirds are turning up dead on Western Alaska beaches for fifth straight summer

This article was originally published at KNOM.org and is republished here with permission.

NOME -- Communities all over Western Alaska are finding dead seabirds on their shores for the fifth consecutive summer. Researchers and federal scientists still have no definitive explanation for the cause.

Gay Sheffield, a wildlife biologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Alaska Sea Grant, annually collects dead seabird samples from communities across the Bering Strait region.

“I would say the scope of this bird die-off is regionwide and reports have come from Gambell, Savoonga, Koyuk, Shaktoolik, Golovin, the Solomon area, East Beach, West Beach (near Nome), even around Diomede, and actually at Shishmaref as well,” said Sheffield.

Numbers range in the hundreds, and that’s only what’s been reported thus far. The National Park Service recently conducted a beach survey in the Bering Land Bridge Preserve to document dead seabirds in the area. The survey team reported to Sheffield this week, and they found upwards of 100 dead birds every 4 kilometers on some portions of beach surveyed.

According to the seabird section lead for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Kathy Kuletz, the die-off is significant but not as large as the thousands found in Bristol Bay in 2019. Her team is responsible for managing seabirds across Alaska and sending any carcasses onto the appropriate testing labs like the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

And so far in this die-off, Kuletz told KNOM, no infectious diseases or toxins related to harmful algal blooms have been identified in the seabirds’ tissues.

“The last I’ve heard, in most cases, the birds are emaciated, so they’re starved. And so far there’s been no evidence of disease or toxins from harmful algal blooms or anything like saxitoxin,” said Kuletz.

“So if you cross off toxins and you cross off disease, what’s left? And I am left thinking the birds actually cannot find the proper foods,” said Sheffield.

After five years of consistently documenting dead, adult seabirds of multiple species in the Bering Strait region, more and more evidence supports Sheffield’s claim — seabirds are not eating.

UAF researcher Alexis Will recently released a study that ruled out food shortages as a cause for the 2018 seabird die-off documented on St. Lawrence Island. Since their usual food source, various benthic prey, was available for the birds at the time, Will cited the potential for another unknown factor that was preventing murres specifically from catching their prey.

Savoonga residents like Punguk Shoogukwruk have seen distressed and dying chicks once again this summer. Shoogukwruk has been collecting seabird samples for Will’s research and continues to observe low numbers of nesting birds, similar to what he saw last year.

Meanwhile further south, Will says a major kittiwake die-off is occurring in the Gulf of Alaska, but is unrelated to what’s happening in the Bering Strait region this summer.

The unanswered question remains however, what is causing these seabirds to starve to death?

“The Bering Sea’s ecosystem is in serious, serious trouble and my fear is that it’s on the verge of collapsing,” said Iyaanga Delbert Pungowiyi.

[2020: Massive die-off of Pacific seabirds linked to a warm-water ‘blob’]

Pungowiyi, a tribal member of the Native Village of Savoonga, is urging decision makers and leaders to take action to reduce the effects of climate change in the Arctic. What’s happening to the seabirds cannot be reversed he says, but Pungowiyi wants these die-offs to be taken seriously.

For the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s part, biologist Robb Kaler said its options beyond testing more birds and monitoring the die-offs are limited.

“In terms of what the agency can do about it, is well… remain vigilant, continue asking for community members to share reports and observations and then continue to work with our other colleagues to try to figure out if it’s a food issue? Is it food as well as exposure to saxitoxin or a harmful algal bloom event?” said Kaler.

USFWS told KNOM it does not have plans to conduct a research cruise or do in-person seabird surveys in the Bering Strait region this year.

While more dead birds are studied, and unanswered questions remain, subsistence users across the region are feeling the impacts of this die-off. In Savoonga, Pungowiyi says fewer seabirds are nesting, fewer eggs are available, and fewer healthy birds are around to eat, which has significant food security implications.

“Since time immemorial … over 90% of our food security has been from the Bering Sea itself with the bowhead whales, walrus, seals, seabirds and ducks,” said Pungowiyi.

One Savoonga elder even sent his dinner of seven auklet chicks to Sheffield, wondering if it was safe for him to eat as he normally would. He also reported observing seabirds eating the wrong type of krill based on his own traditional knowledge of seabirds’ diets and behaviors.

Pungowiyi, Sheffield and many others believe the five consecutive seabird die-offs are connected to an ecosystem-wide shift that’s been occurring in the Bering Sea since the cold pool barrier was removed in 2018.

Keeping with this trend, scientists with NOAA Fisheries documented extremely warm temperatures in the Northern Bering Sea on August 21. According to data from this summer’s bottom trawl survey, sea bottom temperatures in the Eastern Norton Sound and other waters around Nome reached 8 degrees Celsius, or just over 46 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to climatologist Rick Thoman these significant temperature changes are a sign of what’s yet to come.

“That is undoubtedly going to be important for commercial fisheries. And in the long run, that is going to, I’m sure, impact the kinds of fish species that show up and wind up taking residence in the Northern Bering Sea as well,” said Rick Thoman.

But in terms of what caused these significantly warm sea bottom temperatures, Thoman says he doesn’t have enough information yet to explain that.

[Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of dead shorebirds found on stretches of beach surveyed in the Bering Land Bridge Preserve.]

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