Death on the beaches - The mystery of the Cassin’s auklets
Late fall and early winter have seen tens of thousands of Cassin’s auklets washed up dead on West Coast beaches from California to British Columbia. This is especially sad news after the highest fledgling success rate for the birds was recorded on Triangle Island in 2014.
Cassin’s auklets are a small oceanic bird that feeds on zooplankton such as krill and come to shore to nest in burrows. The world’s largest colony of them is on Triangle Island, one of the Scott Islands located off the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Living Oceans is helping to shape a management plan for the Scott Islands to protect feeding grounds for sea birds through our place on the advisory board for the proposed Scott Island Marine National Wildlife Area. This unfortunate die-off highlights the need for the federal government to create more protection for the waters around the islands where sea birds gather food during the breeding season.
Early indications are that the cause of the deaths is starvation, which suggests a disturbance in the food web. This could be linked to the record warm ocean temperatures and a developing El Nino which changes the Pacific Ocean currents. The Cassin’s auklet may be like a “canary in a coal mine” warning us about environmental changes that may affect other species. Although other species have been found dead this year, such as common murres, their numbers are not anywhere near the magnitude of dead Cassin’s Auklets. Troubling, but this tough little bird has our attention.