Thousands of seabirds starved to death in the Bering Sea — and scientists see evidence of climate change
“Every person in our community knew something was wrong,” says one local official.
For months beginning in October 2016, carcasses of tufted puffins turned up one after another on the shores of St. Paul Island, a tiny Alaskan outpost in the southern Bering Sea.
“It was very apparent that something strange was happening. They just keep washing in and washing in,” said Lauren Divine, director of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Ecosystem Conservation Office, who helped oversee the birds’ collection. “Every person in our community knew something was wrong.”
The odd-looking seabirds — with their rounded heads, golden head plumes and distinctive bright orange bills — typically migrate south to warmer waters that late in the year, so having any puffins wash ashore was rare enough. But the arrival of hundreds of emaciated puffin carcasses, as well as of a second species known as the Crested auklet, alarmed and astonished local residents and scientists.
“Part of the mystery is what in the heck were those guys doing there? Why hadn’t they left? … That means there’s something going on in the system that’s not too good," said Julia Parrish, a professor at the University of Washington who also runs a large citizen-science project known as the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, or COASST. “We know month in and month out what is normal, what to expect.”
The mass die-off of the widely beloved birds off Alaska — one of a growing number of “mass mortality events” affecting seabirds recently — was anything but normal.
Parrish and a group of colleagues used weather data to estimate that between 3,150 and 8,500 birds likely died, most likely from starvation. And in a paper published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, the authors theorize the die-off is at least partially attributable to the changing climate.
“This mortality event represents one of multiple seabird mortality events that have occurred in the Northeast Pacific from 2014 to 2018, cumulatively suggestive of broad-scale ecosystem change,” they write. Such episodes, they add, “are indicators of a changing world, and particularly of climate change.”
Tufted puffins breed in the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast, feeding on various fish and marine invertebrates, which themselves rely on plankton for food. But several years of significant warming and reduction in sea ice has resulted in troubling changes, such as the migration of certain “forage fish” such as capelin, juvenile Pollack and other energy-rich prey that puffins and other birds depend on to survive.
The authors suggest the climate-fueled shifts that likely affected the food supply, as well as the fact the birds were in molt — a process that replaces their feathers but also hinders their ability to fly — ultimately doomed the puffins that washed ashore on St. Paul Island.