Fish & Wildlife Service focuses on food-related causes for 2018 seabird die-off


A group of seabirds — murres, specifically — nesting in the cliffs. (Photo from the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The exact cause of the 2018 seabird die-off that affected more than a thousand birds in the Bering Strait region, is still unknown. However, scientists with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service believe it is not related to a strain of avian flu that was found in two seabirds, which is at odds with prior theories from a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

According to Kathy Kuletz, the seabird section coordinator for Fish & Wildlife Service in Alaska, 26 carcasses from the 2018 die-off were sent to them for sampling. Those seabirds were then transferred to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

“Some of them were not in real good shape when they (United States Geological Society) got them, but they were able to determine that 14 died of starvation, they were highly emaciated. One died from some kind of trauma and two they couldn’t determine. All of those were tested for avian influenza. Two of those came back positive.”

The two birds that tested positive for avian influenza were a kittiwake from Wales and a thick-billed murre from Savoonga. That thick-billed murre was the exact same bird a University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher came across during her studies on St. Lawrence Island in 2018.

“Of course, birds were starving, so that may have been poor foraging ability, that may have been a result. But we’re looking a little bit more at ‘maybe they were sick,’” said Alexis Will, a researcher with UAF’s Institute of Arctic Biology. Will recently explained how she and her fellow researchers found no evidence thick-billed murres experienced food shortages in 2018.

She cited the thick-billed murre from Savoonga with avian influenza as an indicator that the cause of the die-off from 2018 could be due to disease and not food-related.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service disagrees.

“Both H10N6 viruses and H16N3 viruses (or avian flu) have previously been detected in apparently healthy birds,” said Andy Ramey, a research geneticist with USGS’ Alaska Science Center.  “And again, none of these previous detections have been associated with die-off events.”

Based on his more than ten years of studying avian influenza, and previous scientific findings, Ramey is skeptical that the bird disease caused the 2018 die-off. Fish & Wildlife Service is doing more tests and studies to confirm that disease like the avian flu did not cause this large-scale event to happen.

Meanwhile, Ramey, Kuletz and fellow Fish & Wildlife Service seabird biologist Robb Kaler, believe there are other factors contributing to hundreds of birds starving and dying in the Bering Strait region. Those include record warm ocean temperatures, lack of sea ice, and the absence of a cold-water barrier in the Bering Sea from 2018.

“So with the warm water and the lack of sea ice, that’s going to affect the metabolism of both the predator, in this case the seabird, and the prey, whether it’s krill, euphasids or forage fish,” Kaler said. “But that warm water could also affect the abundance and distribution of that prey.”

Although the scientists acknowledge there is still food available for seabirds to eat near St. Lawrence Island, and in the Bering Sea, their prey base is changing and may not be as nutritious as normal. Kaler refers to these types of fish as “junk food.”

“Capelin are very rich in nutrients versus pollock or cod, juvenile cod or pollock, being brought to the nests of a thick-billed murre. Capelin are king and there’s a junk food hypothesis about less nutritional…so the parent has to work harder to provision the nest if they’ve got junk food that they’re bringing back to their chick.”

With ecosystem-wide changes underway in the Bering Sea, Fish & Wildlife Service isn’t ruling out food-related causes of death or that there were potential effects of avian influenza or harmful algal blooms (HABs).

The agency is, however, emphasizing that the 2018 seabird die-off in the Bering Strait region was most likely not associated with avian influenza. Ramey also points out that emaciation is not a clinical sign of influenza in birds, and many of the seabirds they sampled were found to be emaciated.

According to Kaler, they anticipate another seabird die-off will be seen in the Bering Sea this summer while Fish & Wildlife Service works to solve the mystery of the 2018 event. If the Bering Strait region experiences another large-scale dieoff this year, that would be the sixth year in a row featuring mass seabird deaths.

AK Murre Die-Off

Dan Joling | Associated Press

Dan Joling / Associated Press

Lake Iliamna in Southwest Alaska is North America’s eighth-largest lake, but nobody would mistake it for the Pacific Ocean. Not even a seabird.

So when thousands of common murres were found dead at the lake — part of a massive die-off of a species whose preferred winter habitat is at sea — seabird experts were puzzled.

“We’ve talked about unprecedented things about this die off. That’s another one,” said John Piatt, research wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Murres occasionally land in fresh water, Piatt said.

“You figure it’s a misguided individual. To have 6,000, 8,000 birds in the lake is pretty mind-blowing, really,” he said. “I’ve never heard of any such a thing anywhere in the world.”

Abnormal numbers of dead common murres, all apparently starved, began washing ashore on Alaska beaches in March 2015. After late-December storms, 8,000 were found at the Prince William Sound community of Whittier. The confirmed carcass count is now up to 36,000, but most don’t wash ashore. Also, Alaska has more coastline than the rest of the United States put together and relatively few beaches have been surveyed.

Common murres catch finger-length fish to feed their young in summer and can forage on krill. Less is known about what they eat in winter. Because of a high metabolism rate, they can use up fat reserves and drop to a critical threshold for starvation in three days of not eating.

Researchers trying to find out the cause of the deaths would not have thought to look on a freshwater lake but were alerted to the Iliamna carcasses by Randy Alvarez, a member of the Lake and Peninsula Borough Assembly.

A commercial fisherman, Alvarez has lived in Igiugig on the west end of 77-mile long Lake Iliamna since 1983.

He had seen a few dead murres on the beach, but on a mid-February flight with the borough mayor and manager, they saw thousands.

“We came up with a guess of 6,000 to 8000 birds in about 12 miles,” Alvarez said.

Nobody he knows remembers common murres at the lake. Alvarez speculates the birds could not find food in the Pacific and flew to the lake to eat salmon smolt. Lake Iliamna has not frozen the last two winters, which itself is strange.

His friends and relatives in Naknek, a Bristol Bay port, in normal winters catch smelt, another small, silvery fish.

“This was the worst anybody had ever seen it for smelt,” he said, and he wonders if it’s connected to the North Pacific’s third-straight year of above-normal temperatures. If seabirds can’t find enough to eat, he worries that salmon won’t either.

“I think something is not right,” he said.

Scientists in multiple federal agencies are trying to determine if the murre deaths are connected to lack of food, parasites, disease, weather or something else, but they keep being pitched curves, like birds showing up in surprising places.

“This is the thing about this die-off,” Piatt said. “We don’t even know what we don’t know.”

Excerpts from Freak Storms and Butterfly Die-Offs: This Is Your Climate on Fossil Fuels

Monday, 01 February 2016 00:00
Written by 
Dahr Jamail By Dahr Jamail, Truthout | Report

…In late December 2015, a freakish oceanic storm moved into the Arctic where it pushed temperatures 50 degrees above normal, even causing melting at the North Pole in the dead of winter.

Large die-offs of birds, whales, antelope and other animals across the globe are now being attributed, in large part, to ACD.

December brought wild weather events in other places too, as the UK saw its single wettest month ever recorded, with nearly double the average rainfall. That month in the UK also shattered temperature records, with an average temperature that was 4.1 degrees Celsius higher than the long-term average.

Worldwide, December saw the planetary temperature increased to 1.4 degrees Celsius above the 1890 average. The annual increase of warming for that month, compared to the previous December, according to Japan’s Meteorological Agency, was the equivalent of cramming 20 years of anthropogenic warming into just one 12-month warming period.

And warming trends are not slowing down. They are, instead, continuing to speed up.

The UK’s Meteorological Office recently released its global temperature forecast, and the agency is already predicting that 2016 will most likely be even warmer than 2015.

A look at recent scientific reports, coupled with extreme weather events around the world, show that this prediction is already well on its way to becoming a reality.


In parts of California, so much groundwater has been pumped from the earth that the land is literally sinking, an issue that is now costing that state billions of dollars as it struggles to repair damaged infrastructure.

Of course, humans are not the only ones affected by these rapid, sweeping changes. Large die-offs of birds, whales, antelope and other animals across the globe are now being attributed, in large part, to ACD.

ACD is even affecting the behavior of our planet as it makes its way around the solar system.

“Unprecedented” numbers of murre seabirds have met their fate in a massive die-off across large areas of Alaska, and scientists are attributing it to starvation caused by ecosystem changes fueled by ACD. This isn’t a huge surprise; data from studies from both 2007 and 2012 warned that melting snow and permafrost were causing huge drops in lemming populations, which would impact food sources for many species, causing a rippling effect across the entire ecosystem of that part of the world.

It’s not just fauna that is threatened – flora is also experiencing ACD-fueled die-offs. Across the US Southwest, a recent study warns that ACD could likely trigger a “massive” die-off of coniferous trees, including junipers and pinon pines, sometime during this century.

In the UK, the Butterfly Conservation charity recently released a study showing that three-quarters of the UK’s butterfly species have declined in just the past 40 years. Along with habitat destruction and the increased use of pesticides, ACD was named as one of the primary culprits.

ACD is even affecting the behavior of our planet as it makes its way around the solar system. Climate disruption has now been shown to be causing the rotation of the entire planet to slow, thus making days longer in length. This is due to the amount of melting taking place across the world’s glaciers, which is adding to global sea level rise from that melt water, which is what is slowing down rotation.

Melting ice in Antarctica, both on land and in the water, is causing a large number of countries to position themselves on the icy continent in an effort to exert influence, looking forward to the day when the treaties that currently protect that continent from resource extraction and militarization expire.


In Europe, the future of most of the continent’s ski industry is in doubt, as ACD-fueled temperatures are resulting in less snow and seasons are shortening.

Increasing planetary temperatures are now heating up all of the oceans – much faster than we previously thought. In fact, a recent study shows that the deep ocean has warmed as much in the last 20 years as it had during the previous 100 years combined.

Those warming water temperatures cause the water to expand, adding to rising sea levels already augmented by the ongoing melting of the planetary ice. The rising sea levels are particularly evident in Miami, where multimillion-dollar homes, roads and businesses are already being encroached upon by the sea. Eventually, they will be abandoned.

Making matters worse, even the depletion of groundwater from aquifers in places like California has recently been shown to be adding to rising sea levels, since much of it ends up flowing into the oceans.

“Where there were fish for decades, now there is very little.”

Meanwhile, within the oceans themselves, life as we’ve always known it is well on its way to being completely transformed. The extreme El Niño we are experiencing now, amplified by ACD, is warming water temperatures so much that major coral bleaching events, along with coral death events, are becoming widespread.

Water temperatures have already increased enough in the Indian Ocean that there has been a reduction in phytoplankton (the base of the food chain) by 20 percent, which means the food chain is rapidly diminishing. Thus, scientists are warning that the entire ocean could well become an “ecological desert” if things continue as they are.

“We seem to be spending more and more time out at sea looking for catch,” a 54-year-old fisherman who operates his boat up to 90 miles off the coast of Sri Lanka told Reuters recently. “Where there were fish for decades, now there is very little. It is strange, but all of us have been noticing that.”

A recent study by 16 authors shows that Greenland alone has lost more than 9 trillion tons of ice since 1900. And the rate of ice loss is increasing dramatically, with a doubling of ice loss per year between 2003 and 2010, compared to what the rate was throughout the last century.

To make matters worse, another recent study shows that Greenland is going to contribute in yet another way to global sea level rise, by the fact that rising global temperatures are changing Greenland’s ability to store excess water, which means more melting ice is likely running into the ocean than was previously believed.

Greenland saw a recent major melting event in January, of all months, which is disconcerting, to say the least.

Denial and Reality

It should come as little surprise that Sen. Ted Cruz leads the denial section in this month’s climate dispatch. The Republican presidential candidate, in the wake of the COP21 climate summit in Paris, said that if he were elected president he would withdraw the United States from the climate agreement.

In direct contradiction to Cruz’s statement, a Reuters/Ipsos poll shows that the majority of US Republicans actually support collaborating with other countries to work to mitigate ACD, and are even willing to take steps to do so.