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Seabird die-off in Gulf of Alaska part of bigger problem

Updated: Aug. 5, 2021 at 7:00 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Scientists from a number of organizations are looking into a small die-off of black-legged kittiwakes on Middleton Island, a natural bird habitat with facilities on site for researchers to study them.

University of Alaska Fairbanks research scientist Alexis Will said this particular die-off doesn’t warrant a “mass” distinction, but it’s another event where a large number of seabirds in Alaska died off unexpectedly. She said this event is a chance for scientists to learn more about how to respond when these things happen.

Black-legged kittiwake is a type of seagull. Will said they are abundant in Alaska and they can live to be up to 30 years old. For a week in the middle of July, she said hundreds of them were turning up dead on land and washed up on the shore at Middleton Island south of Prince William Sound.

“It seems pretty localized,” Will said. “We’ve been talking to other sea researchers throughout the state and they have not seen any death or sickness on the colonies they work on.”

Right now, researchers are still looking into what caused this. Will said none of the carcasses they found appeared to be starved, so she thinks it’s either a virus or possibly a bacterial issue.

Will said scientists regularly spend all summer on Middleton Island to study the birds that live there. This event happened while they were there, which is not always the case. She said it gave them the chance to study a die-off as it was happening and develop better methods to respond to them in the future.

It almost certainly will happen again based on the frequency of seabird die-offs in Alaska, according to Will.

“So prior to 2015, you know maybe five to 10 years,” she said. “Every ten years there might have been something really remarkable that would have happened. And yeah, since 2015 I think that something has happened pretty much every year.”

She said die-offs almost never happen for the same exact reason. There could be issues with food, ocean temperatures, algae, viruses, bacteria — all sorts of things. And they happen in all different kinds of ecosystems in the state.

“Each die-off has its own story and its own set of circumstances that have come together and resulted in this massive, or smaller but unusual event,” Will said.

Will said there are human dangers associated with them. Some communities will harvest either seabird eggs or the whole bird sometimes for sustenance — not kittiwakes though.

During these events, researchers have to alert communities they may not be safe to eat. Sometimes it’s taken them a year or two before they can tell people they’re safe to eat and handle again, Will said.

While this die-off is smaller than most of them, and the bird population is not in jeopardy, Will said the hope of being present for the entire event will help researchers be able figure out why these events happen faster, and alert surrounding people in a more timely manner.

The study is ongoing between University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Alaska Anchorage, the Institute of Seabird Research and Conservation, McGill University the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey. Will said anyone in the area who sees a kittiwake, gull or other seabird dead or acting strange should call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service at 1-866-527-3358.

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