Researchers Investigate Causes of Seabird Die-off Along Alaska's coast – and Inland

Jan 15, 2016

Starving seabirds searching for food, far from shore …

Editor's note: first of a two-part series.

The seabird known as the common murre lives along the North American coastlines, feeding on nutrient-rich small fish such as capelin and herring. But murres are dying by the thousands throughout southern Alaska – apparently because they’re not finding enough food.

“Why are they starving?” says Robb Kaler, a migratory bird expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage. “We know what’s going on. We just don’t know why – the mechanism to indicate why are they starving.”

The bodies of common murres litter the beaches of Prince William Sound and many other areas around Alaska. Some of the seabirds have been found some 350 miles inland, around Fairbanks.
Credit David Irons

Kaler and many others have been looking for the answer to that question for months now, since they first started getting reports of massive die-offs that’ve left thousands of murres dead or near death along the coast of Alaska over the past several weeks. Kaler has been studying the problem since early last year.

“We started getting reports of dead birds washing up on beaches in late March in Seward, in Resurrection Bay,” he said.

Kaler and other experts say there’ve been many such mortality events involving murres in recent decades.

“It happens from time to time,” says wildlife biologist Heather Renner, who works at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge in Homer.

But, she added, “This one seems really, really big and widespread geographically, which is the unusual thing.”

So widespread that some of the seabirds have made their way inland hundreds of miles from the ocean, including a few found around Fairbanks, about 350 miles north of the coast.

“It’s unparalleled,” says Dan Gibson, a Fairbanks-based avian expert. “There’s never been a record of common murre north of the mountains, no record in the Interior before.”

A resident of Two Rivers, a community east of Fairbanks, took this photo of a murre she found on her property last week.
Credit Becky Hammond

Gibson is a retired manager of the bird collection at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks’ Museum of the North who’s been studying Interior Alaska’s bird species for more than 50 years. He’s also a member of the Arctic Audubon Society, which he says started getting reports of murres around the holidays.

Gibson says the emaciated condition of the birds and the death-by-starvation of so many others shows the scale of this mortality event statewide.

“... This is still way, way off the charts,” he said. “There’s nothing that I’ve heard about or read about that parallels this.”

Kaler and others believe the murres traveled far and wide, because they weren’t getting enough food in their usual places, along the continental shelf off North America’s northwest coast.

Next week: Researchers outline theories about how warmer-than-usual ocean temperatures led to the die-off of common murres in Alaska.

Editor's note: State and federal wildlife officials ask anyone who finds a murre, dead or alive, to contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by calling toll-free 1-866-527-3358 or by e-mail at AK_MBM@fws.gov