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Scientists counting number of dead common murres in Southcentral Alaska

By Heather Hintze 8:33 PM January 7, 2016

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to figure out the magnitude of the common murre die-off around southcentral Alaska. There are more than 8,000 just on the shores of Whittier.

On Thursday, a team of biologists took a boat around Prince William Sound to see how widespread the problem is.

“One dead, 50 meters,” Tamara Zeller called out. “Another dead one.”

Zeller is an outreach biologist for Fish and Wildlife. She said her team takes estimates on the number of dead birds from the boat because it’s not possible to stop at every beach.

“I counted 400 but I’m sure there’s a lot more that you don’t see,” she said.

For a more accurate count, they have to get their boots on the ground.

“Like right here, you can see there’s a murre there you can’t see from the boat,” David Irons pointed out.

Carcasses littered beaches for miles outside Whittier.

“My guess from the boat was 98 and I counted 284 which is a lot more,” Zeller said.

Irons just retired from his job at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Now he’s volunteering his time to count the dead birds. He said there have been major common murre die-offie in Alaska before but this one is different.

“Scientists tend to get blasé about this but this is bigger than I’ve ever seen,” he said.

They know the birds are starving to death, they just don’t know why.

“Seabird biologists say seabirds are indicators of the health of the ecosystem. Now they’re dying and that is telling us something. We should be aware of that. If we don’t record they’re dying it goes unnoticed,” Irons said.

On Thursday, the rough estimate was about 3,000 dead birds. That’s just the first day in a four-day study with the U.S. Geological Survey, which also has a boat out in Prince William Sound. Next week the two organizations will get together to determine what the next step is.

While there’s nothing the can do to help the birds, biologists said it’s important to understand what’s going on as our climate continues to change.

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