Seabird experts are deeply worried about the state of Canada's northern gannet population, with chicks appearing to be starving to death while their parents struggle to find food.

Researchers say the birds are abandoning their chicks at an alarming rate, leaving them without food to survive.

Bill Montevecchi 2014-0828

'They're going after whatever they can get theirs hands on,' says Memorial University seabird biologist Bill Montevecchi about starving northern gannets.

"A couple of them just fell of the cliff," said Bill Montevecchi, a seabird biologist with Memorial University.

"They're probably so weak and so emaciated they just can't keep it together. So there's high mortality and most of it's going to be due to starvation."

There is speculation the events may have something to do with unusually warm waters in the North Atlantic.

Each summer, hundreds of thousands of gannets make their home on the cliffs of the famed Cape St. Mary's in Placentia Bay, one of six known colonies in either Quebec or Newfoundland and Labrador.

'Really kind of grim'

Montevecchi, who has been working with colleagues collecting data in the field, estimates about half of the chicks along one section of Cape St. Mary's have been abandoned this year.

"So the situation is really kind of grim," he said.

Gannets are known for being dedicated parents, maintaining the same mate and laying just one egg which they closely protect from predators.

"It's not like it's a pleasant place living in a gannet colony. So to stay alive there as a chick, to be successful, you have to have really good parents or you won't make it," said Montevecchi.

Abandoned chicks have also been observed in at least one other colony. Experts compare their behaviour to that of  to seagulls rather than the vigilant hunters that they are.

Fishermen also say they've been scavenging for scraps thrown overboard.

"This isn't something that gannets do in a major way. [But] they're right beside the boat and they're going after the fish offal. They're going after whatever they can get theirs hands on," Montevecchi said.

Ocean temperatures under scrutiny

He wonders if the gannets are starving because their usual prey of mackerel and other fish have retreated to deeper water, or farther out to sea where the water is colder.

"There's something going on with warm water and the unavailability of the fish the gannets would normally be getting at this time of year."

Environment Canada's David Phillips, a senior climatologist, appears to bolster that hypothesis.

Records show most of the waters off the east coast are three degrees warmer than usual.

"That extra warmth, that persistence of southerly flow, American air, coming northward, the lack of Arctic air around Newfoundland is probably helping those water temperatures be as surprisingly warm as they have been."

A similar trend was observed two years ago, although fewer chicks were abandoned at that time.

But researchers like Montevecchi worry what the recurrence means for the future of the gannet.

"It's a mystery we're trying to solve. The mystery has a lot of implications for us, in terms of fish, in terms of a warming climate."

With files from Ted Blades