Thousands of Gulf of St. Lawrence seabirds likely dead of avian flu

·2 min read
Northern gannets breed in densely-packed colonies, making it easier for the virus to spread. (Josée Basque/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Northern gannets breed in densely-packed colonies, making it easier for the virus to spread. (Josée Basque/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Wildlife officials around the shores of Prince Edward Island are being kept busy collecting sick and dead birds from beaches.

"It's been keeping us, as well as [the P.E.I. government division of] fish and wildlife and the Canadian Wildlife Service all very busy, for sure," said Dr. Megan Jones, Atlantic regional director of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, and a professor at the Atlantic Veterinary College.

She said Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has also been involved.

The birds are mostly northern gannets, and 230 of them have tested positive for avian flu. Jones said the likely toll around the Gulf of St. Lawrence is in the thousands.

Northern gannets breed in densely-packed colonies, providing easy avenues for the virus to spread as the birds come together to nest in the spring.

'Uncharted territory'

While so far it has been mostly gannets, two common murres were picked up off a beach in eastern P.E.I. — positive for avian flu in preliminary tests — and there have been reports of double-crested cormorants in New Brunswick.

"We're just trying to get an idea of what the numbers are, where they're being affected and what species are involved so we can at least track what's happening," said Jones.

Nicola MacLeod/CBC
Nicola MacLeod/CBC

"Unfortunately, because it's in wild birds, and there's not really anything you can do about that."

Avian flu can be a serious issue for farmers if it spreads from wild birds to domestic poultry.

It's difficult to know what course avian flu in the gulf will take, said Jones.

"We're in uncharted territory here. This is new for our region," she said.

CBC
CBC

"As it warms up the virus doesn't survive as well in the environment under warm temperatures. UV light is also good for killing viruses."

But, she added, the hope of summer weather knocking back the virus is countered by concern about conditions in the breeding colonies.

As the virus continues to spread, people who keep domestic birds on the Island are being advised to prevent them from having any contact with wild birds.

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