What's killing seabirds? Scientists baffled
Something is killing seabirds. For the third winter running, seabirds not usually seen in such near-shore waters have been washing up, apparently...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Something is killing seabirds.
For the third winter running, seabirds not usually seen in such near-shore waters have been washing up, apparently starved to death, on beaches in California, Oregon and Washington.
And for the third year, scientists say the reasons aren't clear. What they do know is this: The deaths matter.
"Birds around the world are really good indicators of ecosystem health," said Bob Emmett, a research fisheries biologists for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Newport, Ore. "If the birds aren't doing well, then the salmon won't do well, and the marine mammals won't do well."
Researchers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found 175 dead auklets, and 68 dead puffins in a three-day survey late last month at a 10-mile stretch of the Clatsop Spit at the mouth of the south shore of the Columbia River, said Roy Lowe, project leader for the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Auklets and puffins also have been found dead on the beaches in Washington's Long Beach in unusually high numbers, Lowe said.
The birds were found to have no body fat and empty digestive systems, Lowe said.
"When I see dead birds floating ashore, it's kind of a bellwether for what is going on underneath the water," he added.
Near Newport, Bob Loeffel has walked a nearly five-mile stretch of beach weekly since 1978, logging the number of dead seabirds he finds.
This year, between January and March, he said he found more dead birds than in almost any other year since he started counting. They included rhinoceros auklets, horned puffins and tufted puffins — all species not usually seen near shore during the winter months.
But exactly what's going on in the ocean is not known, said Julia Parrish, an associate professor of aquatic and fisheries science at the University of Washington. She said she isn't sure whether it's a result of a fundamental change in the coastal ecosystem or a smaller-scale shift in the food supply.
"On the one hand the birds are literally screaming at us: 'Something is changed. Something is different. We are not surviving well.' And yet there is no obvious smoking gun," Parrish said. "We seem to be in a period in which the marine environment of the Pacific Northwest is becoming very variable, like a machine that is a little out of kilter."
Ocean temperatures have, on average, been warm and the food web has been unproductive during the past three years, said Bill Peterson, an oceanographer with the National Marine Fisheries Service. "The birds were stressed at the end of their rope," he said.
Still, he said he predicts a turnaround coming in the summer, with colder water that will kick-start the food chain.
Shifts in ocean productivity are not new, but scientists say they have been seeing such patterns shift more quickly. Climate change might be one explanation. But they aren't sure.
"One of the predictions of global warming is that it will increase variability," Parrish said. "But there is a lot of inherent variability, and it is hard to draw the signal out of all that noise."
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or email@example.com
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