Scores of seabirds dying off in Alaska

U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Verena Gill holds a live murre found during a survey of a Seward, Alaska, beach earlier this month. The murre later died. Scavengers got to the dead birds in front of her. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Seabirds called murres are starving all over Alaska's south-central coast, and scientists say they don't know why.

Ailing seabirds are dropping onto Valdez streets and parking lots, floating into Whittier and washing up on Seward beaches.

"It's staggering," said Verena Gill, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, who led a survey of Seward beaches that found 72 dead murres.

Throughout March, people have been calling wildlife agencies with murre sightings.

Biologists said the common murres are experiencing a major die-off. So far, Gill said, all the sightings add up to 1,000-2,000 dead or ill murres, and that would be a fraction of the total number.

Mass deaths happen periodically to murres, which look like little penguins, around the world.

The seabirds are not endangered, though. Perhaps 10 million murres live in Alaska waters, said John Piatt, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist who documented a 1993 die-off. In that instance, more than 100,000 birds died, Piatt said.

In 1998, a smaller die-off occurred, apparently confined to Cook Inlet, he said.

Common murres are about 17 inches tall, with dark brown coloring on their backs and heads and white bellies. They weigh 2.2 pounds when healthy. They waddle on land, but are phenomenal deepwater divers. Their primary food source is herring.

Scientists haven't figured out what is causing the starvation. It could be a combination of bad weather and scarcity of fish, Piatt said.

"The fish may move off or move deeper. They (the murres) are making a living out there in the open ocean all winter long," he said. "They have to feed pretty much every day."

The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward has rescued 18 birds — some just 60 percent of their average body weight — and hopes to learn more about what's causing the deaths, said center rehabilitation technician Tim Lebling.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will also send some dead birds to a USGS lab in Madison, Wis., which investigates unusual die-offs. The Madison group will look for toxins, parasites and diseases, Gill said.