Marine birds in N.L. are still dying, this time possibly because of avian flu

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This photo of a gannet colony was taken by Chris Mooney at Bird Rock in Cape St Mary's on Sunday. (Submitted by Bill Montevecchi - image credit)
This photo of a gannet colony was taken by Chris Mooney at Bird Rock in Cape St Mary's on Sunday. (Submitted by Bill Montevecchi - image credit)
Submitted by Bill Montevecchi
Submitted by Bill Montevecchi

Dead seabirds are being discovered once again in parts of Newfoundland, mostly throughout coastal areas of Placentia Bay from Cape St. Mary's on the Avalon Peninsula to Point May on the southern Burin Peninsula.

In the spring, dead or dying murres were being found by the hundreds in the western region of the island. At the time, sea ice was the suspected cause of the event. This time, however, biologists fear that avian influenza is behind the die-off.

Seabird biologist Bill Montevecchi said there's nothing much anyone can do right now, other than documenting the mortality, the spread and the trajectory of the disease as it moves across the island.

"It looks like it's been coming from the west, maybe the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on the Burin and now it's showing up in Cape St. Mary's," Montevecchi said Tuesday.

"One of our students on Great Island had eight dead puffins in Witless Bay. So it could just keep going."

It's a problem being witnessed throughout the Maritimes. Hundreds of dead birds have been found on the shores of New Brunswick since May. Thousands were killed in Quebec with avian influenza as the main culprit, and Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia are also reporting dead birds by the hundreds because of the highly contagious disease.

Montevecchi personally made the trip to Point Lance on Sunday, which is near Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve — home to thousands of seabirds of varying species including gulls, razorbills, common murres, cormorants, gannets and lack-legged kittiwakes.

He said his group counted 53 dead murres and 10 dead gannets, among others, in that one day alone.

Josée Basque/Radio-Canada
Josée Basque/Radio-Canada

"The beach was just littered with dead animals. We took some swab samples of their saliva," said Montevecchi.

In a statement to CBC News, Environment and Climate Change Canada said it and its partners are actively investigating the deaths and will have more information to share in the coming weeks.

"With respect to birds collected, several were collected from beaches on the Burin and Avalon Peninsulas last week and were submitted to the Newfoundland Animal Health Division in St. John's for analysis," the statement reads.

"The Newfoundland Animal Health Division forwarded samples for preliminary testing of highly pathogenic avian influenza to Canadian Wildlife Heath Cooperative in Prince Edward Island on Monday."

Dead, injured or sick birds should not be touched and should be immediately reported to the Newfoundland wildlife emergencies line, Environment Canada said.

'It's an alarming thing'

Montevecchi said the important thing right now is for the public to report any instances of dead or dying seabirds to the proper authorities.

He said a group of people have already been doing so, including commercial fisherman Karl Hodge of Point May on the southern Burin Peninsula.

"I've been noticing a lot of dead birds," Hodge told CBC News on Tuesday.

"It all began about a month ago, I seen them first when I started lobster fishing. It started off with gannets. I didn't see many puffins and turres then but it seems like in the last couple of weeks there's been a lot of dead birds washing ashore, floating on top of the water. It's an alarming thing."

Submitted by Bill Montevecchi
Submitted by Bill Montevecchi

Hodge said he doesn't think starvation is the problem. He said the birds he's come across have had fat bellies but looked sick.

Other fishermen have told him they have been witnessing the same thing, he said.

"It's a lot of birds. It's got to be in the thousands," said Hodge.

"I haven't thing anything similar to this. You'd see an odd bird here or there, but not in these numbers."

Robert Hennessey, mayor of Lord's Cove, which is just east of Point May, said anywhere the ocean comes near coastal roads in his area, there's a good chance of finding dead birds washed up.

He said he found over 50 birds on Thursday.

"We started seeing them probably around the first week of July," said Hennessey.

"It's not good. It's not looking promising. Everybody is anxiously awaiting [testing results]."

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