Dead murres wash up on Haines’ beach

More than a dozen dead common murres washed up on the beach in front of Haines on Tuesday, part of an unsettling trend happening across the state. According to biologists, the seabirds are starving to death.

Dead murres on the beach in Haines on Jan. 12, 2016. (Tim Ackerman)
Dead murres on the beach in Haines on Jan. 12, 2016. (Tim Ackerman)

Haines’ Tim Ackerman was out for one his usual walks on the beach on Tuesday when he noticed something a little unusual: dead seabirds.

“I counted about 14 of them between the cruise ship dock and the harbor,” he says. “There were some in the harbor, too, up on the beach.”

He says when he saw the first dead murre, he didn’t think much of it. It had been partially devoured and, as there are usually are around here, eagles lurked close by.

“I counted probably three to four of them that were still whole then I knew they weren’t prey. They were the starving birds that have been all over the state.”

Rob Kaler is a biologist specializing in seabirds with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Migratory Bird Management division. He says in the past few weeks alone the conservative estimate for dead murres washing up on Alaska shores is up to 10,000. The birds are starving to death; a cascading effect of warmer ocean water, he says. Kaler explains that the mixing of cold and warm water raises nutrients like plankton, closer to the surface. When the water stays warm, that doesn’t happen which impacts the entire food chain.

“NOAA also reported that this to be an unusual mortality event year for whales, so we’re seeing the effects of this throughout the food web,” Kaler says.

Reports of dead murres started coming in to wildlife officials in March, he says, with the numbers picking up in November and again over the Christmas break.

“I think what we had there was a pretty severe storm that pushed birds that were towing the edge over that breaking point in terms of succumbing to the elements and not having their metabolic needs met,” says Kaler.

Kaler says he’s gotten reports of emaciated, dead birds as far south as Sitka and as far west as Chignik Bay and Unalaska. He says of all the birds they’ve studied, no poison or toxins have been found. The murres’ stomachs are completely empty, Kaler says. Common murres eat between 10 and 30 percent of their body weight each day, which equates to between 90 and 300 fish.

“It’s really peaked in the northern Gulf of Alaska, Cook Inlet, Whittier, Seward, and then reports from Valdez as well as now Haines and Sitka would be the broad range,” Kaler says.

The overall impact this die-off will have on the total population is unknown. There are 2.8 million common murres in Alaska. If these deaths continue to occur, and include lots of adult females in their breeding peaks, than it’s possible, he says. And while the number of deaths this year is usually high,   murre die-offs have happened in the past. Kaler says they are mostly related to El Nino.

“In terms of saying that this could have population-level impacts, we hope it won’t, but we intend to monitor and see. Our efforts right now are focused on the magnitude of this event, as well as capture the geographic scope – how wide is this occurring? -and the duration – how long?”

In Haines, local bird expert Pam Randles called the discovery upsetting. She says the murres were feeding in Portage Cove and Lutak Inlet last week.

“And so, they’re trying to find food in here, which is not their normal habitat,” Randles says.

Not only is the bird die-off unsettling, the implications are scary, Randles says.

“Our salmon eat that stuff and who knows what else is dying off, or starving, or having trouble?”

Norm Hughes has been commercial salmon fishing in Alaska for more than 30 years. He says last season saw skinnier fish – up to 20 percent smaller.

“The fish came back, but there’s less fish, the price was down and the fish were smaller so it was like a triple whammy for a local fisherman,” he says.

Hughes says, for now, these events aren’t a major concern. When they say go fish, he’ll fish.

Biologist Kaler encourages anyone who sees dead birds to report them to ak_mbm@fws.gov or call the hotline at 866-527-3358.