Seabirds dying by thousands
Seabird biologist David Irons drove recently to the Prince William Sound community of Whittier to check on a friend’s boat and spotted white blobs along the tide line of the rocky Alaska beach. He thought they were patches of snow. A closer look revealed that the white patches were emaciated common murres, one of North America’s most abundant seabirds, washed ashore after apparently starving to death. “It was pretty horrifying,” Irons said. “The live ones standing along the dead ones were even worse.” Murre die-offs have occurred in previous winters but not in the numbers Alaska is seeing. Federal researchers won’t estimate the number, and are trying to gauge the scope and cause of the die-off while acknowledging there’s little they can do. Scientists say the die-offs could be a sign of ecosystem changes that have reduced the numbers of the forage fish that murres depend upon. Warmer water surface temperatures, possibly due to global warming or the El Nino weather pattern, may have affected murre prey, including herring, capelin and juvenile pollock. There are about 2.8 million breeding common murres in 230 Alaska colonies, part of a worldwide population of 13 to 20.7 million birds. An estimated 8,000 of the black and white birds were found dead on the Whittier beach, said John Piatt, research wildlife biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center.