Hundreds of dying seabirds found across northern Alaska

A dead murre that washed ashore in Nome in June 2018. (Photo: Zoe Grueskin, KNOM)

Since May, hundreds of dead and dying seabirds have been found across the northern Bering and southern Chukchi seas.

The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have labeled the event a die-off and are coordinating efforts within local communities.

“These birds have been starving,” said Kathy Kuletz, a wildlife biologist for the USFWS. “They’re very emaciated. Their muscles have atrophied. There’s a lot of physical signs inside the body they’ve been starving.”

So far, there has been no evidence of disease or toxins in the seabirds.

But coastal communities on St. Lawrence Island, near Nome, and in Shishmaref have all found dead birds — including murres, fulmars, shearwaters, kittiwakes, auklets, and puffins — washing up on shore. Kuletz said most of the carcasses were found in June, but have continued through the summer.

This die-off is unusual because of the duration and large geographic area. Since the spring, seabird die-offs have also been recorded in the Pribilof Islands and the northern Gulf of Alaska.

Kuletz said it’s concerning from an ecological standpoint and because the birds are a food source.

“People who live in these remote communities, they rely on birds for eggs or for the meat,” Kuletz said. “They have noticed the birds weren’t coming to the colony or they were finding sick birds, birds acting odd.”

Dead murres. (Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

This die-off is separate from an event that began in 2015 and killed an estimated half million common murres in Alaska.

But researchers hypothesize it could be connected to the blob, like that die off was. Although at this point, Kuletz said scientists haven’t proven that link.

There’s not much scientists can do besides monitoring the die-off.

But because there isn’t baseline data in many areas, Kuletz said that poses a particular challenge.

“It’s going to be hard to tease apart what is normal level, baseline level, compared to the changes in conditions,” Kuletz said. “And things are definitely changing up here.”

Kuletz says they are working alongside other agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Geological Survey to determine what the ocean conditions were like before the die-off.

If you see dead of dying birds, you can report the sighting to the USFWS at 1-866-527-3358.