More dead marine mammals, birds found on region’s beaches
Alaska Sea Grant agent Gay Sheffield from Nome responded to report of a dead bowhead and a dead grey whale northeast of Shishmaref near Cape Espenburg. Shishmaref locals loaded up in a boat with Sheffield and set out to find the dead whales. The weather was rough and on June 23 they boated about 40 miles in the inner lagoon between the barrier islands and the mainland. They found the dead bowhead whale, a young 24-ft female, too decomposed to be able to determine cause of death, but Sheffield took samples that will be tested for algal toxins. Having heard local reports of the unusual number of marine mammal carcasses on the beach, Sheffield kept her eyes peeled for dead animals as the boat moved. She saw 17 dead seals and walruses from the boat.
The next day, they went out by boat again to look for the dead grey whale, only to be turned around by rough seas. Not giving up, they loaded a four-wheeler on a boat, crossed the west channel and went by ATV on a stretch of eight miles, finding a total of 23 dead marine mammals including one dead minke whale, five walruses, five spotted seals, one ringed seal, ten bearded seals and one unidentified seal. The seals were mostly pups. Based on the lack of its jaw and tongue, Sheffield deducted that the minke whale was likely an orca kill.
When Sheffield took samples she noticed a peculiar lack of the typical thick blubber. “On the two freshest carcasses, one of a young spotted seal and one of bearded seal pup, both had no blubber,” Sheffield said. “This indicates a lack of food, they were not eating right.” The next day, Sheffield and local subsistence experts traveled about six miles by ATV around the west, north and east coast of Sarichef Island – home of the community of Shishmaref — and found another 21 dead marine mammals and one live but very skinny and lethargic spotted seal pup. They counted six walruses, six bearded seals (three adults, two pups, one hard to determine), six ringed seals (including four pups); one live seal that was approachable and did not leave the beach. “It was a very thin molted spotted seal pup,” Sheffield said. The tally of all three days: 63 dead marine mammals, including one bowhead, one minke and the elusive grey whale. Sheffield confirmed and documented 47 walrus, bearded, ringed, and spotted seals and saw an additional 17 dead seals and walruses from the boat. While Sheffield said it is not unusual to find dead marine mammals once in a while, the number of dead animals was higher than normal.
As ocean temperatures are rising way above normal – a NOAA trawl survey in the southern Bering Sea reports sea temperatures higher than 6°C than normal – signs of an ecosystem in trouble are flashing. While some marine mammals do die naturally or are lost during harvest, the amount of skinny seal pups and walrus calves is alarming.
Also in Shishmaref, local observer and science teacher Ken Stenek reported increased numbers of washed up bird carcasses. “The biggest surprise is the number of auklets (parakeet and crested),” he wrote in an email to the Nugget. “There were almost 10 auklets found washed up on the beaches early June when I might find 1 or 2.” One intact crested auklet was sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as a horned puffin and a murre that had washed ashore.
“The majority of the birds that I had seen were alcids (murres, auklets, and puffins),” Stenek wrote.
Kathy Kuletz, Ph.D. and supervisory biologist for the Migratory Bird Management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a phone interview with the Nugget that about 50 murres washed up dead near Gambell in May. In late May, about 30 horned puffins washed up dead at Togiak Bay. She also talked about the bird reports out of Shishmaref and, confirmed that it is not a normal occurrence. She said there is concern about the warmth in the ocean water, that can lead to toxic algal blooms and other shifts that are not fully understood. “There is something going on in the ecosystem that indicates problems with the food chain,” she said. Kuletz said there are no results back from necropsies done on some birds. In previous bird die-offs in the region, necropsy results came back saying that the birds were emaciated and most likely starved to death.
How can that be when the Bering Sea is teeming with fish? Or better, what eats the fish that feeds the birds and seal pups?
In addition to the birds, Stenek reported another unusual find: krill that had washed up one night. “Thousands if not millions along our beaches alone as well as the other islands that make up our barrier island group,” Stenek wrote. He also saw dead fish such as tom cod, capelin and sandlance.
The cause has not been determined.
NOAA Fisheries is in charge of finding out what is killing those ice seals. Spokeswoman Julie Speegle said in an email that NOAA works with its partners to document the strandings.
Asked what NOAA experts and scientists think causes the marine mammal deaths, she responded, “NOAA Fisheries experts and scientists are using the collected information and pictures to understand these ice seal strandings. However, because these seals have been dead for quite awhile, it may be impossible to determine the cause of death for the individual seals.”