Tens of thousands, more likely hundreds of thousands, of Alaskan seabirds have starved and are starving to death again this winter, as their sustaining ocean pasture collapses.
“There were so many dead and dying birds on one beach that the biologist at first I mistook them for patches of snow.”
Even though the news is grim, you’ll be singing the heartening reward at the end, we can act to restore their ocean pasture.
The bigger seabirds like the Common Murre are the most apparent victims. Their population is usually plentiful at around 2.8 million individuals, distributed across at least 230 Alaskan colonies. According to an analysis conducted by the US. Fish and Wildlife Service during the last weekend, as many as 8,000 Common Murres have been found dead on a single beach close to Whittier, a small town located around 60 miles southeast of Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage.
“That’s unprecedented, that sheer number in one location is off the charts,” said one state biologist.
Thousands of additional dead Murres have piled up on beaches in the vicinity of Homer, Alaska approximately 125 miles south of Whittier. In between no one knows but there are many hundreds of similar beaches between Whittier and Homer where dead birds are sure to have been washing ashore, and keep in mind most dead seabirds never wash ashore at all!
An accurate estimation of the total number of Common Murres that have died in recent months is impossible to make, argues John Piatt, a researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Science Center.
Many of these fatally malnourished birds are strewn across remote beaches, stretching across several hundred of miles along the Gulf of Alaska, so while this definitely appears like an incident of mass mortality, its exact extent may never be fully established.
Researchers believe that the reason for this exceptionally high number of deaths among Common Murres is surely linked to shortages in their food supply. These birds fly ordinarily fly hundreds of miles to feed in rich ocean pastures and so the extent of the ocean collapse must be truly monumental in extent.
A new report on collapse of ocean pasture plankton has just emerged in scientific journals. This report shows results of a detailed 16 year study where ocean plankton in the Indian Ocean, 20 years ago the healthiest ocean on the planet, is suffering a 2% per year loss of ocean plankton. The North Pacific is the twin to the Indian ocean and the collapse of its ocean pastures where Murres and countless other sea life must find their food or starve is in equally terrible condition.
The beautiful Murres being around 18 inches tall, these Alaskan seabirds require very little food on a daily basis as little as a single ounce – half a small herring, corresponding to just around a fifthieth of their body weight, which usually ranges between 2 and 2.3 pounds.
The fact that so many of them are failing to have even this small amount of nourishment is indicative of how depleted the local herring population is nowadays. The striking black and white birds have been observed to be starving over an extended period of time, their dwindling numbers confirming that the local ocean pasture ecosystem stretching across the North Pacific Ocean is under significant strain.
Some of the Murres which are considered a strictly marine bird have been seen trying to survive by flying inland, sightings being reported around rivers and lakes, and even to the east of the formidable Coastal Alaskan mountain ranges.
The Race to Rescue Survivors
Near Denali National Park, home of Mt. McKinley the highest peak in North America and 150 miles from the ocean, four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King was running his sled dog team when he came across and rescued a couple of Murres. These were among countless numbers that flabbergasted birders, mushers, and homeowners have found floundering in the deep snow as far inland as Fairbanks, another hundred miles north. The rescued birds were emaciated and weak and sure to perish as even healthy Murres cannot easily take off from land, where they are at the mercy of predators and the elements.
“They were kind of everywhere,” says Jill Boelsma of the Denali Education Center.
Boelsma’s enclosed home porch became a temporary Murre clinic for birds, including those King rescued, waiting to return to sea. She turned to Audubon seabird expert Steve Kress (of Project Puffin) for advice, and to her neighbors for help. Dog mushers provided bales of clean straw to cover the floor; halibut fishermen gave up their frozen bait herring to feed the birds— the perfect nourishment.
“Once we got some calories in them, they got pretty feisty, pretty fast,” Boelsma says.
100 Murre carcasses are now undergoing testing at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI, Renner said. All showed signs of starvation, and none have tested positive for toxins, or for viruses like avian influenza. “The consensus is it’s almost certainly food-related,” she said.
All seabirds threatened
Many other species of seabirds also live in this region along-side the dying Murres, and also rely mostly on healthy ocean pastures. Herring and other small plankton eating fish are seabirds favourite food and tragically these ‘forage fish’ are also seen to be dramatically missing throughout the N.E. Pacific. There is nothing fishy about their disappearance, the mystery seems to correlate perfectly with the collapse of populations of schools of ocean pasture dependent fish that have been very sparse up and down the Pacific coast.
The tragedy of seabirds dying in droves is nothing new as I have reported in many stories here on my blog. Last year the NE Pacific witnessed the same massive winter die off of seabirds. Elsewhere in the Atlantic, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean the tragic story is the same as ocean pastures in all of the World’s Seven Seas collapse into desolation.
There is no mystery to this mass starvation of ocean wildlife, as ocean pasture ecosystems collapse there is simply nothing for the birds, fish, and all manner of other sea life to eat.
An Entirely Preventable Tragedy
This ocean pasture tragedy is made all the worse due to the fact that we could be taking care of our threatened ocean pastures, restoring, replenishing, and sustaining them for an inconsequential amount of money. I should know I have done it in this very same region of the NE Pacific.
The cost of acting as caring stewards of vital ocean pastures in all of the world’s Seven Seas is mere millions per year. In return for helping Mother Nature she returns to us, the seabirds, and all of ocean life an monumental abundance. In the Gulf of Alaska just a few short years ago my work to restore and replenish an ocean pasture saw the largest catch of Alaska salmon in all of history return. Where a good catch of some 50 million Pink Salmon were expected to be caught in 2013 instead 226 million Pink Salmon were caught, far more were free to feed all of ocean life and to fill rivers and streams with the fish so abundant one could almost walk across the rivers on the backs of salmon.
Here’s your reward.
The number of people needed to restore and sustain all of the world’s Seven Seas is mere hundreds, perhaps a thousand or so. The cost is mere millions every year nothing like the trillions being sought as climate/carbon taxes to save the world from climate change. The time to rescue, replenish, and restore ocean pastures around the world isn’t decades or more rather it can be accomplished by a few hundred dedicated souls at a collective cost to the entire world of a few millions of dollars per year. Ours will be a song that delivers hope based on proven results in the world’s largest ocean experiment, my experiment/demonstration of 2012.