Seabird Die-offs 2015-2020
Wreck is the term used for a massive bird die-off; it seems appropriate.
Although bird die-offs are not uncommon, in fact, El Niño years are often associated with seabird mortality events, Alaska has been experiencing seabired die-offs that are extreme. This year, 2020, is the sixth year in a row that we have experienced seabird die-offs.
Seabirds are good indicators of ocean ecosystem health. Recent mortality events are concerning in that they may be pointing to significant changes in marine ecosystems. Our northern oceans have been experiencing record-breaking, above-average sea surface temperatures. Seabirds eat cold water fish and zooplankton, which are both reliant on cold water. If the cold-water fishes have relocated because the ocean is too warm, or less zooplankton are produced in the warmer water, then the seabirds have a harder time finding enough food. In addition, cold water fish are fattier and provide more calories and nutrients for the birds, so even if they can find warm-water fish to eat, they may still have trouble meeting their calorie needs.
Most of the dead birds appear to have died of starvation. Murres, for example, have a high metabolic rate and consume 10-30% of their total body weight every day. Changes to their food supply can impact basic functions such as flying, feather molt and weatherproofing, and thermal regulation. Seabird die-offs also impact the entire population because of the reduction in breeding adults and the low productivity rate (success of eggs becoming chicks and becoming adults). Some species have experienced reproductive failure because the females are not in good enough body condition to produce eggs.
These back to back die-offs started with a massive event in the fall of 2015-spring of 2016 in the Gulf of Alaska. Since then we have seen die-off events, each year, across Alaska's coastlines. The events this year were smaller than those in previous years. They are still concerning given that they were widespread and affected several species in the Bering Strait.
2020 Die-offSeabird die-off events were smaller than in previous years, but they remain a concern for subsistence communities that rely on marine resources.
The USFWS is coordinating with federal, state, tribal governments, and community members to report observations and collect carcasses for examination by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Wildlife Health Center. Of the 15 carcasses submitted, 12 were examined and all were emaciated and tested negative for Avian Influenza. Tissues collected during examinations will be analyzed for harmful algal bloom toxins by the USGS Alaska Science Center. Results of those analyses will be shared when they are available.
Downloadable Fact Sheet for 2020
Seabird species affected in 2020
Photo Credits: Horned Puffin, NPS/J. Pfeiffenberger; Common Murres, USGS/S. Schoen; Short-tailed Shearwater, B. Alps; Northern Fulmars, USFWS/M. Romano; Crested Auklets USGS/G. Drew; Black-legged Kittiwake, USGS/S. Schoen.
2019 Seabird Die-off
For five years running now, mass seabird mortality events continue in Alaska waters which continue to be warmer than normal.
Historically, seabird die-offs have occurred occasionally in Alaska; however, large die-off events have occurred each year since 2015. Consistently, bird carcasses examined during these recent die-offs were determined to have died due to starvation. Seabird carcasses from this die-off were collected from multiple locations and sent to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Wildlife Health Center for examination and testing. Initial results indicate starvation as the cause of death. Tissues sampled during examination will also be analyzed for harmful algal bloom toxins and we'll share those results as they become available.
Ocean temperatures are connected to ocean health. Warm temperatures are associated with higher risk of harmful algal blooms, for example. Many fish have a relatively narrow range of temperatures in which they can live, so if water warms beyond what they can tolerate, they seek cooler waters elsewhere.
What can I do?Report observations of sick or dead birds to regional partners:
North Slope: Taqulik Hepa (907) 852-0350
Northwest Arctic: Cyrus Harris (907) 442-7914
Bering Strait Region: Brandon Ahmasuk (907) 443-4265 Gay Sheffield (907) 434-1149
Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta: Jennifer Hooper (907) 543-7470
Bristol Bay: Gayla Hoseth (907) 842-6252
Pribilof Islands: Lauren Divine (907) 257-891-3031
Unalaska: Melissa Good (907) 581-1876
Aleutians: Karen Pletnikoff (907) 222-4286
Or report by phone or email to the USFWS:1-866-527-3358 or AK_MBM@FWS.GOV
You can also participate in monitoring efforts on your local beaches: COASST provides training. Visit www.coasst.org.
Downloadable Fact Sheet for 2019
PartnershipsWith help from Alaska Sea Grant, Local Environmental Observation (LEO) Network, Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, Kawerak, Alaska Migratory Bird Co-management Council (AMBCC), Alaska Department of Fish & Game, the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), the US Fish & Wildlife Service is tracking the number of birds involved, geographic area affected, and duration of the die-off event. To support these statewide monitoring efforts, NPS scientists will continue to track seabird mortality along and near park coasts for Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Katmai National Park and Preserve, Kenai Fjords National Park, and Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.
2018 Seabird Die-offBeginning in May 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Park Service (NPS) began receiving reports of dead and dying seabirds from the northern Bering and southern Chukchi seas, including in the vicinity of the Western Arctic National Parklands.
In late June, NPS investigators found 100 carcasses over a total of 4 km of beach surveyed, most of these being murres along the coast of Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, although other species were found there and in Cape Krusenstern National Monument.
Coastal communities have counted hundreds of dead seabirds that include: murres, fulmars, shearwaters, kittiwakes, auklets, and puffins. Additionally, fork-tailed storm petrels have been observed in large numbers along the coasts of Katmai and Kenai Fjords national parks (including Resurrection Bay), and in Prince William Sound. It is unusual to see this species so close to shore. While carcasses were not observed in these locations, there have been carcasses recorded in Kamishak Bay in lower Cook Inlet and McNeil River Sanctuary.
The USFWS and NPS are coordinating efforts with local communities. To date, all bird carcasses sent to the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center for examination were determined to have died of starvation. There has been no evidence of disease, and tests are pending to determine if birds were exposed to harmful algal toxins.
Since spring, seabird die-offs have been recorded in the Pribilof Islands and the northern Gulf of Alaska. Although die-offs have occurred before, this is unusual due to the number of birds affected, the broad geographic area, and the duration of the event, which is ongoing.
2017 Seabird Die-offLate summer and early fall of 2017 a seabird die-off happened in the Bering and Chukchi seas of Alaska and Russia. Our scientists worked with other agencies to examine the scale and scope of the event. They counted hundreds of carcasses, documented the species, and sent samples to a lab for analysis. Preliminary data indicate the greatest number of birds impacted were Short-tailed Shearwaters and Northern Fulmars, but other species found include Black-legged Kittiwakes, murres, auklets, gulls, and Horned Puffins. Examined birds ultimately died of starvation or drowning, but underlying factors contributing to the die-off have yet to be determined. Early results from a walrus-stranding event in the Bering Strait that coincided with the seabird die-off indicate that walruses had been exposed to algal toxins, although it's unknown if this contributed to their deaths.
The Common Murre Wreck of 2015-2016
Alaska, and along the U.S. Pacific Coast, saw an unprecedented die-off event of Common Murres between 2015 and into the spring of 2016. Warmer ocean temperatures disrupted prey species distribution and hundreds of thousands of seabirds, mostly Common Murres, died of starvation.
Check out this video that shows the results from the expedition to Katmai National Park and Preserve.
Last updated: September 16, 2020