Murre die-off around Kachemak Bay in the thousands

Die-offs of common murres have been taking place across Alaska since summer and the latest report is from Kachemak Bay, according to biologists with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge in Homer.

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Common Murres, like the one held by Wildlife Biologist Leslie Slater on the beach along the Spit in Homer, are turning up along beaches all around the Kachemak Bay area.
Common Murres, like the one held by Wildlife Biologist Leslie Slater on the beach along the Spit in Homer, are turning up along beaches all around the Kachemak Bay area.

Wildlife biologist Leslie Slater says there have been two waves of mortality.

“This die-off started to be noticed around mid-July in certain parts of the state. And so it continued at some level — a fairly high, noticeable level — for a couple weeks and then it seemed to diminish and then there seemed to be resurgence again of the number of carcasses that we were seeing on beaches, and that happened in mid-November or so,” Slater said.

There have been die-offs reported of the penguin-like sea birds in Cold Bay in July and in Kodiak in November. Slater says they’ve also had reports from Seward, Sitka and Prince William Sound. In November starving and dead murres turned up around the Mat-Su and Anchorage areas, farther inland than usual.

“It seems that then they would either be disoriented, which could be the result of ingesting a toxin or they could be very desperate in searching for food and just kept traveling up the inlet,” Slater said.

Seabird die-offs have been recorded all along the west coast of the U.S. in Washington, Oregon and California this year. Slater estimates that a large number of murres have died around Kachemak bay.

“Based on the duration of the time that we’ve had carcasses being reported to us, I would say, it’s into the thousands, certainly, throughout Kachemak Bay,” Slater said.

The dead murres are being counted by citizen scientists all along the Spit and along the beach up to Anchor Point.

“They’ve been doing this for several years and so there’s been a baseline established of what we would consider being a normal winter… and so far, it’s been at least six times the normal background amount that’s been observed,” Slater said.

Slater says citizen scientists mark the murres with color-coded zip ties around a wing or foot and if you see a bird with a zip tie she says you should not disturb it because it’s part of a study.

And anecdotal reports of dead murres and other birds are coming in from across the Bay. They’ve also had reports of dead tufted puffins, horned puffins and an ancient murrelet. She says the birds, along with murres, feed on small fish or dive to get invertebrates during summer. They dive for squid, crustaceans and krill during winter.

Slater says murre carcasses were sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin where bird flu was ruled out. The dead birds seem to have starved, but Slater says there could be other factors.

“There are analysis that are pending. So it could be something that had to do with PSP, like paralytic shelfish poisoning, that was ingested at some point, but that is still unknown,” Slater said.

Results from those tests should be back in January. That’s also when Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge biologist Heather Renner will be presenting a paper on the murre die-off at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage.

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Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.