With more seabirds dying in Arctic, research vessel makes a rare voyage

The R/V Tiglax provides critical support for biological work, management programs, and village outreach and education. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The R/V Tiglax provides critical support for biological work, management programs, and village outreach and education. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The 120-foot research vessel Tiglax is sailing up to Cape Thompson for the first time in more than 20 years to look at seabird populations.

The Tiglax (pronounced “TEK-lah”), which is owned by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, takes its name from the Aleut word for “eagle.”

The Homer-based crew set sail July 30 from Nome.

Like an eagle, it covers vast stretches of Alaska, visiting refuges from Safety Sound and Topkok to Sitka Sound, from Cape Lisburne to the Pribilof Islands.

Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge was formed in 1949 by consolidating dozens of smaller refuges throughout the state.

Voyages to the Northern regions are rare.

Slow-moving vessels, small research teams, and cost make it difficult to study in the northern Bering and Chukchi Seas.

The last trip to Cape Thompson was in 1995.

“This is the closest port to Cape Thompson and Cape Lisburne that isn’t too shallow for our ship to get into,” said refuge supervisory biologist Heather Renner, who explains their teams’ plans for study in Cape Thompson. “We’re going to go see the condition of the seabird breeding cliffs.”

They hope to monitor the size of the population and get an idea of breeding success.

Seabird die-offs have been observed all around the state.

The Tiglax also will stop to make observations at Sledge Island.

Mean temperatures this year in the Bering Sea have been about 4 degrees warmer than usual and sea ice levels were extremely low, Renner said.

“The effects of climate change are more pronounced in the North than they are in other parts of the state.”

The warmer temperatures and low sea ice cause changes in the ecosystem, including recent seabird die-offs, that scientists don’t yet understand.

Necropsies on birds around the state show that the birds are starving.

Sea bird die-offs in the past have been related to warm water.

Renner shared some popular hypotheses, which included prey redistribution and a change in the quality of the prey.

“Fish or plankton just go a little bit deeper to where birds can’t reach them or it can change the quality of the prey,” she said. “We know in warm years that the plankton composition is different. They tend to be different species, and those tend to be less fatty, less lipid-rich, things that are less good for seabirds.”

It isn’t just seabirds in trouble.

Reports of dead or emaciated fish and marine mammals are coming in from around the state.

The researchers found a dead whale in Safety Sound.

The situation has necessitated more communication between scientists and community members.

“The seabird die-offs we’ve been having recently — one good thing I’ll say is that they’re teaching us how to partner and how to collaborate,” Renner said. “Lots of people in communities that are sending in reports from communities around the whole state are helping us to understand what’s going on and how to put the story together.”

While the team won’t have any conclusions following this trip, they will be looking for places to set up camp in Cape Thompson for the future, to allow for more research trips and more data.

The Tiglax will be returning to the Port of Nome on Aug. 10.

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