Record seabird die-offs slowing

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Posted by on August 25, 2005 at 17:45:07:

Seabirds have been starving to death by the thousands this summer and washing up on beaches from Point Conception in Southern California to British Columbia.

Coastal surface ocean temperature are 2 to 5 degrees above normal, apparently caused by a lack of upwelling a process that brings nutrients to the surface, activating the marine food chain. The lack of upwelling is apparently tied to the southerly winds that also brought odd rain in May and June to the Mendocino Coast.

Upwelling feeds algae and krill. When the krill, a tiny shrimp-like creature, start to multiply in an area, they attract a huge ocean party, attended by baitfish, sportfish, birds and even whales gathering to eat.

This year, birds couldn't find food and starved to death in numbers between five and 10 times as high as usual, experts said. Some seabirds headed for land in search of food, creating rare bird-watching events.

The record die-offs are slowing in mid-August and biologists are studying what the deaths could mean for other species.

Humpback whales and salmon off the Mendocino Coast could be negatively impacted if the krill numbers were to stay low, said Paul Kelly, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) in Sacramento. It remains to be seen if this year's changes in wind pattern are part of a bigger picture.

While Kelly said there was no evidence to support printed speculation that global warming was the cause of this year's wind-based calamity, he said the ocean is warming off Northern California every year by fractions of a degree and the ecosystem has been made much more fragile by mankind's actions.

For now, the primary victim has been the common murre, a black and white sea bird, which has died in record numbers all over the West Coast. Other species of birds, such as Brandt's cormorant, have also been starving this summer, Kelly said.

The abundant salmon run this year has been forced to find alterative foods. Krill, a tiny crustacean, is what gives salmon the pink flesh color, Kelly said. Fishermen report many hungry fish off the Mendocino Coast that will strike at most anything.

The rocky coast of Mendocino is one area that DFG has spotty reports on and the state agency would like to locate a local group to compile reliable and regular reports about bird deaths.

Local DFG biologist Pete Kalvass says the dead bird reports began coming in in large numbers in May. The original reaction was that an oil spill might be responsible for such a large number of dead birds, he said.

Laboratory analysis showed the birds were starving, not dying of poisoning or disease. Then, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle documented the decline in plankton was causing the deaths, he said. The local DFG office got a couple of calls per day in June about dead birds, which has since tapered off.

Many local beach walkers told the Advocate-News they have seen many more dead seabirds than usual all summer.

Last Wednesday, Joel Green found four dead common murre at Manchester Beach washed up within a few feet of each other.

"My understanding is that this is related to the lack of deepwater upwelling and subsequent failure of krill and other critters at the bottom of the food chain. This seems like the beginning of a huge catastrophe which people need to be aware of," said Green, who has also found dead sea lions this year.

The common murre is black on the back, white on the front and looks a little like a small penguin.

Kelly said the murre is a "sensitive environmental indicator" that could foretell problems for hardier species.

David Jensen, vice president of the Mendocino Coast Audubon Society, estimates about 10 times more dead seabirds than usual this summer on Ten Mile Beach, where he walks.

Kelly said the ocean temperature has been going up a fraction of a degree annually as part of a long-term trend not directly related to this year's climate changes. This has driven some animals, such as the stellar sea lion, farther north.

Kelly said there has never been a situation this negative for seabirds in the past 30 years. Other published reports say this has never happened in 50 years. Kelly thinks that adult Humpback whales, with their large fat stores, should be able to survive the decline in krill if the situation is indeed temporary.

"They are large animals that can sustain themselves for a long time, even in the absence of food. But seabirds have to eat within a few days or they starve."

For the first time in 30 years there was widespread abandonment of nests in the Faralones, (Northern California offshore islands) especially by a bird called the Cassin's auklet.

"After a while when the adults can't find food for the young, they save themselves. It is as if they say; "to hell with it, we just don't have any energy and enthusiasm left for the nest,'" Kelly said.

Kelly said if this year is in fact rock bottom of a cycle, the seabirds will need to be able to raise lots of young when a good year comes.

Unfortunately dramatic increases in human usage of the ocean in the last few years makes that more difficult, he said. He says a uninformed kayaker in a place like the Mendocino Coast can cause an entire island of sea birds to fly just by getting too close. While they are gone briefly, the seagulls can come and eat all the young and eggs.

"That's it. The seabirds don't get a second chance that year," Kelly said.

Kelley said it isn't clear why the deaths have tapered off in August.

Michael Hoffman, vice president of the Mendocino Coast Environmental Center, has seen many more dead birds washed up than usual and heard reports of starving seabirds desperately following boats and fish striking any line offshore.

What should people do?

"Feeding the birds by hand won't really help. This is a global type project we all need to be working on," he said.

While Hoffman says the government seeks loopholes to escape any blame for its policies contributing to such disasters, he says the solution starts closer to home, pointing to the fact many people leave the lights on in their home without thinking of the bigger cost of too much energy use.

"That is the kind of thing that is overlooked every day in America We have to be motivated to change our lifestyles to reduce our energy consumption and allow the ocean the time to heal," he said.

Dorothy Tobkin says this is the worst year she has ever seen for dead murre numbers. She saw 15 on Virgin Creek beach in less than half a mile. She also saw an open seabird species much closer to shore than usual, which Kelly calls a sign of desperation by hungry seabirds.

Her advice to help the oceans? "Vote in 2008."

A beach-walking club in the Monterey area has been a catalyst for information on the bird deaths this year, Kelly said. He said there is no current mechanism for gathering similar information about the Mendocino Coast, but says if a local group came forward to help, it would be a positive development.

The Fort Bragg number for the Department of Fish and Game is 964-9078.

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