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Thousands of dead seabirds wash up in Whittier

By Heather Hintze 7:57 PM January 6, 2016
WHITTIER –

Thousands of dead seabirds are washing up on the shores of Whittier. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said biologists counted about 8,000 common murres on surrounding beaches.

“It’s a major event and it’s difficult to see,” said Kathy Kuletz, the seabird coordinator for Fish and Wildlife.

On Wednesday afternoon, Justin Siemens and his girlfriend, Erin Henszey, drove down from Girdwood to get a look at the carcasses piled up on the rocks.

“It’s super crazy. I’ve always seen a little bit of die off from the winter weather, but nothing like this,” Siemens said.

Kuletz said there have been four major common murre die-offs since the 1970s. She said this has the potential to be the biggest mortality event in the state’s history — numbers could reach more than 100,000.

“It’s more widespread,” Kuletz explained. “We have anecdotal reports from citizens and fishermen, people out on the water who’ve been running into them in the bays, dead or dying.”

Kuletz and a team of scientists will head out by boat on Thursday to get a more accurate count in the outlying areas.

She said the die-off is likely due to the warm El Nino weather. The murres’ food source might be going deeper than the birds can dive to feed. That’s one reason they might be starving to death. Some birds are searching for food in other places. Murres have been found as far north as Talkeetna and even Fairbanks.

Guy Runco, the executive director for the Bird Treatment and Learning Center, said it’s strange to see seabirds so far from the ocean. The center’s taken in more than 200 birds in just the first week of 2016. Volunteers are rehabilitating and releasing the animals as fast as they can.

“It’s tough. But this is what wildlife rehabilitation is all about. You just hope you’re making a difference,” Runco said.

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