by Kristine Liao
October 11, 2019
The first reports came in May. They were sparse, but enough to put seabird-monitoring coordinator Hillary Burgess on edge. “Here we go again,” she thought. By late June, almost every time she checked her inbox, yet more news of washed-up seabirds on the Alaskan coast greeted her.
Volunteers had collected nearly 9,200 seabird carcasses by early September—and those are just the bodies found washed ashore. Kathy Kuletz, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist, estimates the total number of deaths may reach in the hundreds of thousands.
Historically, mass seabird die-offs have been occasional events in Alaska, but for the past five years, they have occurred annually. This year, as the carcasses continued to pile up, a few new trends became clear: The die-offs were more geographically widespread and lasted for a longer period compared to previous years, and they largely targeted Short-tailed Shearwaters, although dead puffins, murres, and auklets—the main victims in recent years— have also been found.
“There’s a lot of concern out there,” says Burgess, who works for the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a community-science project that tracks populations and deaths. “People aren’t used to encountering hundreds of dead birds on a beach that they walk on regularly.”