Thursday, 18 July 2019

From Krill to Whales, Marine Life Is Washing Up Dead in the Bering Strait


By Davis Hovey | July 5, 2019 | 
THROUGHOUT THE MONTH OF JUNE, dead marine life was being reported on a weekly basis in the Bering Strait region.
First it was a dead walrus in St. Michael, then a large group of blue mussels near Port Clarence, and more recently, it was several types of seabirds and fish near Shishmaref.
“People in Shishmaref reported some birds washing up: sounds like mostly thick-billed murres, and people in Savoonga also had a murre die-off earlier in May.”
That’s Kathy Kuletz, the seabird coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. She’s been working with local observers like Andrew Kakoona and Ken Stenek as well as other scientists. During the last three weeks of June, Stenek reported over 30 dead birds on a stretch of Shishmaref’s east beach, under a mile and a half long.
Gay Sheffield, with Alaska Sea Grant, confirmed she returned from her travels in the Bering Strait region this week to take samples and report on some of those die-offs. However, Sheffield said she could not provide more details until her reports are finished.
While Sheffield is tending to that, Kuletz’s role involves coordinating shipments of samples and carcasses of the dead seabirds, so they can be sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin. 
“We will be getting some carcasses from Shishmaref of sick or dying birds that had washed up sick and then died. In that case, there were also reports of mounds of krill that was dead and mixing with some fish. So that’s a concern; that indicates something else is going on in the system.”
According to Kuletz, the numbers reported are relatively small: there have not been any big die-offs so far this season. And she says there are usually some dead birds found on the coast every year. 
“But in concentrated numbers, where you get 20, 30, 50 or more birds at a time, that’s unusual. And it’s also very unusual up in the far north, in the Bering Strait Region.”
Something else unusual happening in the region that some scientists say could be related, is ocean waters getting drastically warmer. Climatologist Rick Thoman, with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, says by the end of June, sea surface temperatures in the Norton Sound were anywhere from six to 12 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.


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