Marine scientists are on alert as hundreds of seabirds have been washing up dead on local beaches. Since May, the bodies of more than 300 rhinoceros auklets have been collected around the eastern side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Washington’s Protection Island Wildlife Refuge, near Port Townsend, is home to one of the world’s largest known colonies of the puffin-like bird, which is named for its unique appearance.
“Because it has a big horn right on the top of its bill, so it looks like a little rhinoceros,” says University of Washington professor Julia Parrish.
Parrish tracks the birds in her role as executive director of the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, COASST. Normally, she says as many as 15 or so might wash ashore each year on beaches around the Salish Sea.
“But this year, we have a body count that’s topped about 320 birds. So that’s a huge, huge difference.”
She adds that about 72,000 rhinoceros auklets nest on Protection Island every summer, and with others in the area, the total local population is probably near 100,000. So right now, the death toll doesn’t pose a huge risk. But she says COASST has never seen anything like this.
“In fact, that body count of over 300, for one event – one species and one event – is pretty much the largest body count that we’ve ever had in the Salish Sea. So, we’re really paying attention.”
Initial tests on some of the birds showed they were severely emaciated as well as suffered from complications of pneumonia. But there’s no apparent shortage of food. One hypothesis is that an excess of harmful algae blooms caused by warmer water off the Pacific Coast is producing toxins that are getting into the fish the birds eat. But it could also be a disease. So right now, they don’t know if it’s the tip of a proverbial iceberg or just a passing squall.
“Until we can find a cause of the mortality, it’s really hard for us to make an assessment about whether this is going to go away tomorrow or get worse,” Parrish said.
All they can do is keep studying, along with scientists in Canada, who have been seeing the auklets washing up on that side of the Salish Sea as well.