Alaskan scientist thinks murre die-off related to algal blooms

An Alaskan scientist has a prediction about what caused a recent seabird die-off along the coast of Alaska and it's not good.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning in 'giant' algal bloom could be harming the bottom of the food chain

Dead common murres lie on a rocky beach in Whittier, Alaska, in this image from Jan. 7, 2016. (Mark Thiessen/The Associated Press)

An Alaskan scientist thinks he knows what caused a recent seabird die-off along the coast of Alaska.

Thousands of common murres have been found dead this month, apparently from starvation.

Bruce Wright, a senior scientist Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, has been studying paralytic shellfish poisoning in Alaska since 2006. (Submitted by Bruce Wright)

"It kind of looks like the murre thing is associated with a harmful algal bloom," said Bruce Wright, a scientist with the Aleutien Pribilof Islands Association.

Harmful algal blooms are caused by microscopic plants producing a toxin known as paralytic shellfish poison, or PSP. The toxin is known for making shellfish toxic to humans, but Wright thinks it's hitting the food chain even lower. 

He said other researchers have found that the zooplankton population was reduced last year and the energy in the organism had also decreased. This supports his theory that murres could be starving because PSP has reduced the food base.

This sand lance, collected near Haines, Alaska, was contaminated with paralytic shellfish poisoning. (Submitted by Bruce Wright)

"You have this whole part of the food web that's been altered," Wright said. "I think because of that, these birds are not finding the food to survive, and of course the winter time is the difficult time for these birds. So the animals are food-stressed."

Wright estimates up to 200,000 Alaskan murres could die. With a population he puts at more than two million, Wright said the species should recover, as long as the food base comes back. 

He said there have been two significant algal blooms off the coast of Alaska in recent months, one which Wright called "giant." Because these blooms are associated with ocean warming, there will likely be more.

"I don't think there's anything we can do," Wright said. 

He said the best course of action is to continue studying harmful algal blooms to better understand what's going on and to figure out how humans can adapt when disruptions in the food chain reach us. 

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