November 5, 2009

Massive bird die-offs on NW coast tied to mysterious algae spawning toxic sea foam

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A massive, weird and sickening environmental story is breaking along the coast of the Pacific Northwest: A toxic form of algae previously detected only rarely in those waters is killing thousands of sea birds.
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The single-celled algae called Akashiwo sanguinea is causing what sounds for all the world like a red tide, producing large swaths of chocolate- and rusty-colored waters. According to a story by Lynne Terry in The Oregonian, such deadly blooms have been detected off California and elsewhere worldwide in the past, but the algae has previously been picked up only in small and isolated areas of the Pacific Northwest. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service press release says the algae began showing up in September in Washington.
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The birds most affected are sea ducks — white-winged scoters and surf scoters. Surf scoters’ numbers have been trending down for some time now, worrying scientists and citizens such as those who walk Pacific Northwest beaches looking for dead birds. That network of beachwalkers is run by  University of Washington bird scientist Julia Parrish, who estimates that algae outbreak this fall has reduced scoters’ West coast population by 5 percent to 7 percent:
That is a pretty significant bite into those species. I don’t think it will knock the population back for years. But at least with surf scoters — a species that’s in decline   — conservation scientists are rather concerned about it.
An earlier story by Terry and the press release outline the gruesome mechanism by which the algae kills the birds: When the single-celled algae are broken down by wave action, they create a toxic sea foam. In there are surfactants — the same substances found in detergent that are known to be toxic at certain levels.  These surfactants strip away a layer of waterproofing that protects the birds, leaving them to die of hypothermia.
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There’s a hint here that climate change could be at work, because the waters involved were warmer — and, because of runoff from recent rains, less salty — than normal. Both conditions favor this form of algae.
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And at the same time, a closely related form of algae has turned up along the coast to produce paralytic shellfish poisoning that forced Oregon to halt mussel harvesting.
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Taken with our previous coverage of several years’ of odd weather that caused widespread bird die-offs, and Lisa Stiffler’s coverage of the increasing incidence of so-called “harmful algal blooms” in Puget Sound, this raises profound questions about what’s happening to the marine ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest.  
Update 4:12 p.m.: I was remiss this morning in recalling significant reporting on the Pacific Northwest’s marine ecosystem to leave out stories on ocean acidification and dead zones by Sandi Doughton at the Seattle Times, as well as a parade of stories by several writers for The Oregonian. And I’m sure there are others I’m leaving out who should be included.

One thought on “Massive bird die-offs on NW coast tied to mysterious algae spawning toxic sea foam

  1. See Elsa Wenzel’s website; she mentions InvestigateWest on her blog. We met at SEJ in Madison. “Birds of a feather flock together.” (If there will be any left in 50 years)