Murres, and some other birds are washing up on the beach. Over Father's day weekend, some people found seal pups on the beach. They were alive but alone.
Observation by Ken Stenek:
Over the last three weeks or so, murres, auklets, and puffins have been washing up on the beach. It started with murres in early June, and then we saw auklets, puffins, and other bird species. I found them along a stretch of the east beach, which is a little under a mile and a half long. There were over 30 birds total, mostly alcids. Some will wash up every year, but this is more than I have ever seen. Fish and Wildlife have samples.
Krill also washed up along the coast of the island. On a neighboring island there were piles in the wrack along the beach, and piled into a river channel.They are probably on other islands in the barrier island chain.
Since yesterday, we've been working with folks in Shishmaref (Gay Sheffield of Alaska SeaGrant and Ken Stenek, a citizen involved with COASST (Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team)) to respond to a small seabird die-off (last report, about 30+ birds, mix of species). There are also reports of mounds of dead krill and some fish (reportedly capelin and cod) also washing up. Samples are being collected for shipment to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI. (6-26-19).
Dean Stockwell with University of Alaska Fairbanks Marine Science program writes:
We are seeing blue mussels in Southeast Alaska that are way above the safety levels for saxitoxins. This along with unusually high temperatures all long the west coast and through Alaska up to the Chukchi Sea. In Norton Sound, sea surface temperatures are 14 degrees above normal. When there are warm temperatures like this, the Alexandrium cysts can hatch and create algal blooms. Now there are birds, fish such as capelin, invertebrates such as krill, and blue mussels washing up on the beach. There was also a dead bowhead whale, as well as stranded seals and walrus near Shishamaref. I wonder whether this could be HAB (harmful algal bloom) related events.
Unfortunately, there are not any research vessels up north until the end of July or beginning of August. Observers should keep an eye out for unusual behavior in animals, such as birds or marine mammals looking drunk or with drooping heads. People need to be very wary of eating any shellfish. If there are any unusual colors (reddish or brown tinge) in the ocean water, a sample should be collected. A two-liter bottle would provide a good sample. Refrigerate and then contact me or LEO Network. If you don't have access to refrigeration, you can keep the bottle in the water until you are ready to transport it. These samples can be filtered and then tested in Sitka. Fresh samples of any dead animals are also appreciated and you should contact Gay Sheffield if in the Norton Sound area. (6-26-19)
Mike Brubaker with Community Environment and Health at ANTHC writes:
There have been a number of observations in Norton Sound this month with mortality in krill and mussels, fish, birds, and marine mammals.The backdrop outside Norton Sound includes a shellfish advisory covering the entire span of southern Alaska, due to unprecedented high PSP (paralytic shellfish poisoning) levels. There is also an Unusual Mortality Event in gray whales extending up the Pacific coast. As of June 27, 171 dead whales were reported, 12 in Alaska. The backdrop in Norton Sound is record-setting air and ocean temperatures after a winter/spring with extremely low sea ice conditions. As Dean Stockwell points out above, the sea surface temperatures in Norton Sound are way above normal. Over the past few years, marine bird mortalities have been occurring with thousands of birds dying and showing signs of starvation. In May of this year, stranded seal and walrus pups started to show up on the beaches of Norton Sound. Many appeared undernourished, which has often been the case this year in other instances of marine mammal strandings. The air temperatures in June have also been astounding. Historically, the average high temperature in Nome for June is 51 degrees Fahrenheit. So far this year, the average high temperature has been 60 degrees. In fact, there have been 15 days with temperatures in the 60s and four in the 70s! Rick Thoman can tell us how warm a June this has been. Just looking at the month, there has been a lot of events going on, affecting a wide spectrum of species.
We do not know if these events are connected, or what the cause or causes are. There are a number of possibilities. But given the unusual ocean conditions, an ecosystem-scale event appears to playing out in Norton Sound. A lot of people are trying to figure this out. If June was any indication, we will need all hands and a well-coordinated inter-governmental effort to address the concerns being posed event by event in communities like Shishmaref. LEO Network will update this and other posts with relevant analytical findings as soon as they become publicly available.
Rick Thoman, Climate Scientist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, writes:
Nome will wind up with the a top three warmest Junes on record, and as of the third week of June, sea surface temperatures are 6-12F above normal around the Seward Peninsula.
Thank you to all the coastal communities that are reporting what they are seeing. It is important information as these types of events are food security, public health, and animal health issues. At this point, we need time for the laboratories to do their work with the samples they are being provided. Until we have information back, we can only guess at the cause of the unusual events. What we all can do is continue to report, sample/take photos, and know that we are all in this together.
Kakoona, Andrew, Mike Brubaker, Kathy Kuletz, Gay Sheffield, Dean Stockwell and Richard L Thoman Jr.2019.Dead Krill and Sea Birds, Stranded Ice Seals.LEO Network (leonetwork.org).Accessed 28 September 2023.