Scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say warming ocean temperatures could be contributing to a new round of seabird deaths.
Seabird biologist Kathy Kuletz says nearly 300 tufted puffins have washed up on the shores of St. Paul Island in Alaska’s Pribilof Islands since early October. It’s a significant number of deaths, according to Kuletz, since usually only two or three dead puffins show up a year.
She also said there are likely to be many more that haven’t been found.
“It’s likely that most of the birds don’t wind up on shore or, if they do, they get covered up by snow or ice or rocks on the beach or they get taken by scavengers,” Kuletz said. “So this probably represents a small portion of the birds.”
It’s reminder of what happened in the last year, when thousands of dead murres, another seabird, littered beaches from the Aleutians to Prince William Sound. This time, said Kuletz, the numbers are smaller, but the problem seems to be the same.
“They are still being tested, but certainly the immediate cause is starvation and that means something’s wrong with their food source,” Kuletz said.
Scientists say warmer ocean temperatures may be making it harder for seabirds to find food.
Kuletz says that small fish and other marine life – which the birds eat – may be going deeper or further offshore to find colder temperatures. Or, it’s possible, the food may not be there at all. She says there’s been no sign of disease or parasites that might account for the deaths.
Nearly every bird is discovered emaciated.
The worst of the die-off may be over, according to Kuletz. No new dead puffins have been discovered in the Pribilofs since November 23.
As for the murres, Kuletz said they are no longer washing ashore like they were a year ago but she warns of another concern.
“After having a couple warm years and then having the die-off last year, quite a lot of colonies had no breeding attempts at all or they started late and they weren’t able to breed chicks,” said Kuletz.
She’s afraid the effects of the die-offs could last for many years to come.