Friday, June 9, 2023

A troubling trend of Alaskan seabird deaths highlighted on the 2022 Arctic report card

By ned rosell

Updated: 12 a moment ago Published: 20 a moment ago

The Arctic Report Card, a compilation of northern science by researchers from across the planet — most of them working in Alaska — was revealed in mid-December at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Chicago.

In short, what smart people predicted during the first Report Card news conference in 2006 holds true today: We’re living in a very hot north.

Some changes are subtle and hard for us to notice. For example, the daily temperature being a few degrees higher than the previous day. Others are more striking, like the carcasses of seabirds two and three washed up on an Alaskan beach where they had seen none years earlier.

Rob Kler of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage was lead author of an essay about dead seabirds on the shores of the Bering and Chukchi Seas. Their story appears in a booklet released by officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sponsors of the Arctic Report Card.

Birds such as puffins and mares have long thrived on high-calorie, cold-water fish from the salt waters of Alaska. Since 2017, people in communities along the western Alaskan coast have found more and more dead birds.

Parrot auklets on a hill on Buldir Island in the Aleutians

In the summer and fall, anglers from Izembeek Lagoon to Point Hope reported approximately 450 carcasses of murrays, puffins, auklets, shearwaters, fulmars, and kittiwakes.

This continues a streak of more seabird deaths in recent years. Keller and other authors report that people have found about one million dead seabirds along the west coast of Alaska and in the Gulf of Alaska in the past decade. This compared to 1 million dead birds found on beaches in the 40 years prior to that.

From 2017 to 2021, the scientists examined 117 seabird carcasses, of which 92 were emaciated.

[Warmer, wetter, stormier climate brings typhoons, fires and more rain to the Arctic, report shows]

What changed in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, formerly known as one of the richest fishing grounds on Earth?

Sea ice floe in the Chukchi Sea in July 2021

Less ice floes at the top of the northern oceans (an Arctic report card scientists have quietly shouted about since its inception) allows the water to absorb more heat from the sun.

Warmer oceans may have decimated nutrient-rich fish such as sand lance and capelin. This has come as there has been an increase in numbers of low-nutrient species such as juvenile walleye pollock in the waters off the coast of western Alaska. Biologists refer to pollock as “junk food”, which may not deter birds from hatching or at least make them hesitant or unable to lay eggs.

“Observations in northern seabird breeding colonies indicate a lack of breeding effort or very late and unsuccessful breeding over many years,” the scientists wrote. “Seabird die-offs stemmed from food shortages or adverse foraging conditions, indicating ecosystem changes that may be associated with unusually high ocean water temperatures.”

A red-footed kittiwake flies off a cliff on Buldir Island in the Aleutians

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