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Disease kills hundreds of seabirds in Alaska

Avian cholera hits St. Lawrence Island

Posted: December 9, 2013 - 7:56am

ANCHORAGE — A disease has killed hundreds of seabirds on an island in the Bering Sea — the first documented outbreak in the state.

Avian cholera is to blame for the birds found dead on the beaches of St. Lawrence Island, 200 miles from the mainland, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The disease is common elsewhere, including in California, Nevada and Texas, The Anchorage Daily News reported.

“It’s super, super common,” said Kimberlee Beckmen, a Fish and Game wildlife veterinarian. “The only unusual part is us finding a die-off in Alaska.”

Most of the birds turned up on a 10-mile beach frequented by seal hunters. One hunter in Gambell spotted a bird on the beach with its head flopping backward before it dropped dead, Beckmen said.

Authorities learned about the sea bird die-off Nov. 20, according to a Fish and Game press release issued this week. Residents in Gambell and Savoonga worried something in the environment had killed the birds, and notified officials. Early reports put the number of dead birds at 200 to 300 bird per square kilometer.

The outbreak is apparently already declining, wildlife authorities said. Seabird carcasses are also less plentiful than expected, according to reports from the island villages of Gambell and Savoonga during a teleconference Friday. A local biologist will try to get an aerial count of infected birds or carcasses next week.

“People out there did a fabulous job of responding, reporting, getting the word out,” said Gay Sheffield, a Nome-based biologist with the University of Alaska’s Marine Advisory Program. “It’s only because of their actions that we’re learning what this is all about.”

Among the species killed were northern fulmar, a common subarctic resident that’s white and gray; thick-billed murre, a black and white bird in the auk family; and black crested auklet, a small, deep-diving seabird with a distinctive plume above its bill.

The avian cholera diagnosis came back Wednesday, Fish and Game said.

Officials warn anyone touching a sick bird or animal to wear gloves and wash hands with soap and water after handling animals or butchering meat. Never eat sick birds or animals that may have died from a disease.

Residents were donning protective gloves to put the carcasses in doubled garbage bags for the winter, to prevent scavengers from spreading the bacteria. The carcasses can’t be buried because the ground is frozen, nor burned because fuel is too expensive.

Veterinarian Robert Gerlach, who works within the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said it’s possible earlier die-offs have gone undetected along the state’s vast, sparsely populated coastline.

“It’s not surprising this happened here,” Gerlach said. “We get 6 million birds migrating back and forth.”

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