Seabirds on Northwest coast “chilled to death” by brown algae protein (UPDATE)

LAPUSH — Researchers have confirmed that hundreds of sea ducks found dead and dying on West End beaches were severely chilled rather than poisoned.

Several hundred birds — mostly white-winged scoters and surf scoters — have been found ill or dead from Rialto Beach south to the southern portion of Kalaloch beach since last weekend.

The birds are dying of hypothermia at least partially because of a protein from a brown algae called dinoflagellate, Mary Sue Brancato, a resource protection officer with Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, said after receiving preliminary necropsy reports.

When the single-celled algae is beaten apart by waves, it releases a brownish-green foam containing a soapy protein that strips the protective coating of oil from the ducks’ feathers.

“It’s not a toxicity issue. It’s a physical issue,” Brancato said.

“It is still happening,” she said Saturday. The protein from the algae “is at least partially responsible for the mortalities,” which are “well into the hundreds, several hundred.”

Initial necropsy

Initial necropsy reports from three of the seven birds submitted for the procedure last week show that all were emaciated, while some had lost waterproofing, she said, adding that she didn’t know how many had been found to have protective oil stripped from their feathers.

The soapy protein could strip oil from the feathers of bird species other than scoters, Brancato said, but it is proving especially deadly to the scoters because they find their food in water close to the shoreline, and because they are moulting right now.

Foamy algae

“They are birds that forage right in the surf zone, so they are where the wave action is causing the algae to form foam,” she said.

The migratory birds also are weak right now, having traveled from nesting grounds in the interior of Canada and Alaska to moult at the seashore.

“This species has a simultaneous moult, meaning it loses its flight feathers all at one time,” Brancato said.

“When that happens, they use a lot of energy to grow new feathers, so they are quite vulnerable.

“It could conceivably affect other species. It’s just that this particular species is vulnerable.”

Brown algae bloom

Bird mortalities continue to be restricted to about 25 miles of coastline, even though the brown algae bloom had, by the end of last week, spread north up the Pacific Coast and taken a right turn into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

That’s because the churn of surf is what releases the potentially deadly soapy protein, Brancato said. Where the coastline is not rugged enough for energetic wave action, the algae doesn’t break apart into the brownish-green foam.

Sanctuary researchers, during fly overs Thursday and Friday, confirmed that the algae had spread at least to Neah Bay.

Chris Mohr, owner of Van Riper’s Resort in Sekiu, said he had seen masses of the brown algae there, but Brancato couldn’t confirm that, saying conditions were such that researchers couldn’t see it from the air.

About 50 volunteers are surveying the beaches daily for dead and ill birds to help researchers gather information, Brancato said.

No rescue

Researchers don’t plan to do anything to attempt to save the birds.

“There are no plans for rehabilitation or a rescue operation,” Brancato said.

“We have been looking at what species are affected to see if any population level affects are occurring.

“It is a naturally occurring event.”

Scoters — which have a range extending throughout the coasts of British Columbia, Washington state, Oregon and California — are not listed as an endangered species, although their population levels have been declining lately, Brancato said.

More information should be available this week,

after more necropsies and water sample testing, she said.

Lead agencies

The sanctuary and the National Park Service are lead agencies in the research, Brancato said, with assistance from the state and federal Fish and Wildlife departments and the Quinault, Hoh, Quileute and Makah tribes.

Anyone interested in being trained as a sanctuary volunteer can phone 360-457-6622, or inquire at the office at 115 E. Railroad Ave. Suite 301, Port Angeles.

________

Managing Editor/News Leah Leach can be reached at 360-417-3531 or leah.leach@peninsula

dailynews.com.

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