Surge of Dead Seabirds Alarms Scientists
CHARLESTON, S.C. – Hundreds of dead seabirds that washed up along the Southeast coast in recent weeks apparently starved to death, but experts don’t know why.
The deaths of the birds – similar to gulls and called greater shearwaters – have wildlife officials worried about possible changes in the ocean that could have affected the fish that the birds usually eat.
“It’s got a lot of folks talking and wondering,” said Jennifer Koches, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Is this a canary in the coal mine issue? Is there something that serious going on out in the ocean that it should be causing us serious alarm?”
An estimated 1,000 of the dead birds have been found from the Bahamas to Florida and north to the Carolinas, said Craig Watson, a wildlife biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
About 160 have been found along the South Carolina coast from Hilton Head to Murrells Inlet.
The birds, which feed on small fish, nest on islands off southern Africa and then migrate north during the summer to the ocean off Canada. Most of the dead birds are juveniles that were born this year.
“It does look like they are starving to death,” Watson said. “They are extremely malnourished.”
The winds on the ocean could be pushing the birds off course where they find less to eat, he said.
“The other thing is the forage fish they rely on may be unavailable to them for some reason,” Watson said. “Is it because there is less out there? We don’t know. We are hearing that off the coast of South Carolina it could be one of the worst years on record for forage fish.”
Initial tests on the dead birds do not seem to indicate bird flu or some other disease. Al Segars, a state Department of Natural Resources veterinarian, said that dehydration also was a factor because seabirds get much of the water they need from the fish they eat.
There was a similar die-off two years ago when about 600 dead birds were found, Watson said.
He said some other birds have also been found in recent weeks, but the majority are the shearwaters. There is always mortality among the young birds “but this appears to be a little more,” Watson said.
“There are millions of these shearwaters out on the ocean. I’m not sure an event like this would impact the population that greatly unless it happens year after year,” he said. “But the bigger question is, ‘Why is this happening?’”