Seabird die-offs have happened occasionally in Alaska over the years, but researchers are trying to find out why they've been seeing large die-offs every year in the state since 2015.

"Starvation. A lack of food in the system," said Robb Kaler, a wildlife biologist and seabird specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage.

But researchers haven't figured out exactly why thousands of birds are starving and dying.

USFWS says in May of 2019, the service started receiving reports of dead and dying birds from the northern Bering and Chukchi seas. That was followed by thousands of short-tailed shearwaters washing up on beaches of the Bristol Bay region. By mid-August, officials say the die-off extended along coastal Alaska north to the Chuckotka Peninsula of Russia. Officials say they saw puffins, murres and auklets impacted too, but not nearly to the extent of shearwaters.

Kaler says researchers are wondering if warmer waters have killed fish that birds feed on or if harmful algal blooms have impacted birds.

Bird die-off as seen on the beach at Bristol Bay.

"I would ask people to remain vigilant and continue to report this," Kaler said. "I think one of the factors, if it is a harmful algal bloom piece making sure we are tracking that how that might be affecting these organisms and of course the food and security concern. Are those foods safe for subsistence."

 

2019 Alaska seabird fie-off by the numbers (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Officials say they have not seen any presence of algal bloom toxins in tissue samples from the Bristol Bay north to the Bering Strait region.

"However, in southeast Alaska, exposure to saxitoxin (a biotoxin associated with paralytic shellfish poisoning) was linked in June to a localized die off of breeding Arctic Terns. Analyses of tissue samples for harmful algal bloom toxins are on-going and results will be shared as they become available. To date there has been no evidence of disease," according to a release from the National Park Service.

NPS officials say it and USFWS are tracking events as they unfold. Anyone who observes sick or dead birds is asked to call 1-866-527-3358 to report them.

People are asked to note the location, time and date observed as well as the number of birds. The public is also asked to send photos of sick or dead birds or any video of usual behavior such as whether the bird is approachable or is drooping its head and or wings.

Officials urge the people not to collect dead birds unless they have prior training or have consulted with USFWS.

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