Mysterious Bering Strait seabird die-off enters fourth year

A dead Puffin found along one of the beaches of Nome in June, 2020. Photo from Gay Sheffield, used with permission.

Reports and observations of dead seabirds on the shores of Western Alaska increasingly point to another large die-off in the Bering Strait region.

Robb Kaler with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the summer’s first report from the region was about a dead murre found in Nome around June 2.

“That was a little bit later fortunately then we’ve been getting reports from Gay [Sheffield] from the Bering Strait region for the previous two or three years,” he said. “We were hopeful that maybe it wasn’t going to be another die-off year, but…”

This would be the fourth consecutive year of die-offs for the region, and six years in a row for Alaska waters as a whole.

According to Kaler, the majority of the roughly 50 deceased birds reported last month were either murres or horned puffins. Most came from Nome, while a couple were found in Shishmaref and on St. Lawrence Island.

Then, during the first two weeks of July, Gay Sheffield of Alaska Sea Grant said she received reports of an additional 60 dead seabirds. Initial test results from a handful of those birds have indicated that all of them were emaciated.

As Sheffield explains, the unanswered question remains why these birds and the hundreds from previous years were starving to death.

“So you have a skinny bird starving. That bird could either not find food, even though he’s healthy and looking for food, or he could be sick with something and not feel like eating. Those are two different avenues. If you start looking at starvation, you really want to know whether it’s a lack of food or if there’s an overlying problem.”

Since residents and scientists are finding multiple species of birds washing up dead in the region, Sheffield says she tends to think that indicates a larger scale issue going on in the Bering Sea ecosystem.

Six dead seabirds on a beach. "Nome, 8/16/19" is written in the sand.
A few species of dead seabirds near Nome, Alaska, August 2019. Photo courtesy of Sara Germain, Alaska Department of Fish & Game.

Scientists with the USFWS and the U.S. Geological Survey are still testing seabird carcasses to try to answer that question. Kaler says they are testing for a host of things like infectious diseases such as Avian flu and biotoxins from harmful algal blooms. So far, infectious disease seems to have been ruled out for these particular seabirds.

Meanwhile, residents of the Bering Strait region continue to rely on the birds and their eggs for subsistence.

Brandon Ahmasuk, Kawerak’s vice president of natural resources, says it’s alarming for the region to see large numbers of dead seabirds for this many years in a row, and he says it seems that less harvesting is happening this year.

“So normally my family will go out to Sledge Island and get a cooler full of murre eggs. And I think this year my brother got one. Other communities, like Diomede, had very little egg harvest. So when you combine those two things and think about how that affects everything, then it gets scary.”

This summer could have been an opportunity to shed some light on this mysterious series of die-offs, but now, due to the coronavirus pandemic, essentially no outside research vessels will be coming to the region.

Sheffield says despite this survey setback, the Bering Strait region won’t be left floundering.

“Lack of scientific data in a region does not mean there’s a lack of knowledge. Our communities in the Bering Strait region utilize the seabirds every year, spring and fall, for food…When people are calling in with information that is not normal, that is immediately a highlight to me that we need to get an answer.”

While the region awaits more test results and answers from the federal agencies, Sheffield encourages Bering Strait residents to report any dead seabirds or unusual observations they find this summer.

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