It’s hard to miss the bloody bird carcasses strewn about town, the black and white seabirds floating dead in the water, washed up at the boat harbor and on the beaches, or sitting quietly on snow, unable to get back to the ocean.
Travelers on the Seward Highway have found dead and live Common Murres from Mile 3 to Mile 12 and beyond since mid-November. Another sighting was even more unusual, a Common Murre swimming in freshwater Skilak Lake!
On Tuesday, 283 dead murres were counted along the beach at the head of the bay. Hundreds more littered the other beaches around Seward. Every storm from the south pushes more starving, weak and dying Murres to Seward from their normal wintering home in the Gulf of Alaska.
None of this is normal. They shouldn’t be here in the winter. Statistics of live murre numbers from the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count bear this out. From 1990 to 1996, 3 Count years had zero murres, 1993 counted 36 birds, and the other years had less than nine. In 1997 and 1998, strong El Nino years, there was a “wreck” of murres and 251 and 293 live birds were counted respectively. 1999 found no murres, 2000 had one murre. 2001 rose to 83, down in 2003 to 38, back up to 82 in 2003. Another spike occurred in 2004 with 311, but diminished to five in 2005. From 2006 to 2011, the numbers were in the two digits. None were found in 2012 or 2013, and only one was found last year.
Alarming numbers of seabird die-offs are also occurring this year from California up the coast to the Gulf of Alaska. The Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (AMNWR) in Homer estimates thousands of dead murres in Kachemak Bay since this summer with a spike in July, and again in mid-November.
The AMNWR and the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward have sent murre carcasses to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin for evaluation. Thus far, the main cause is starvation. The reason is likely a very strong El Nino weather pattern that has warmed sea surface water temperatures above average in the Gulf of Alaska. This has changed the ocean ecosystem as cold-water species die or migrate north to cooler waters. El Nino was very strong in 1997-1998 when the murres wrecked. The 2015-2016 El Nino is forecast to become one of the strongest on record.
Another factor is the “Pacific Blob,” a mass off extremely unusually warm water stretching across the north Pacific from Japan to Baja. The Blob also wreaks havoc on the ocean ecosystem. El Nino and the Blob are formidable forces whose far-reaching impacts are yet to be fully understood.
Meanwhile, the staff Alaska Sealife Center is overwhelmed by the huge numbers. The facility does not have the staff or space to fully rehabilitate so many starving birds. Operating under a US Fish and Wildlife Service permit, they are doing the best they can to respond with a quick check-up, a meal of tasty fish, and then release back into the bay. Since mid-November, the staff ha received 87 murres, giving many another chance to live.
The ASLC encourages people to leave both live and dead birds where they are found as capture, transport, and exam can be very stressful. Birds that are near the shore can be shooed back into the water where they are at least safe from predators like ravens and loose dogs.
If alert, live birds are found in unusual locations far from the water, the public should call the local Wildlife Response hotline at 224-6395 (or 1-888-774-7325 toll-free for Alaskan phone lines) before bringing in any murres to ensure that the staff will be available to help.
If you are walking the beaches with your dog, please keep the dog under control to reduce further stress on the live but beached birds. If you see dead murres with color-coded zip-ties around the wing, bill, or foot, please do not disturb. These birds are part of COASST, a citizen science seabird monitoring project.
Donations to the ASLC Wildlife Response Program are always greatly appreciated, either on line at http://www.alaskasealife.org/ or in person. The ASLC is open this winter from 11 to 3 pm daily, with free admission for Alaskans on Wednesdays through February 24. Come watch healthy murres flying around underwater. If you see Jane, Halley, Savannah, or Margaret, say “Thank You!” for a hard, heart-breaking job well done.