Dead Seabirds Are Washing Onto Beaches Around The World

“These birds are basically telling us that things aren’t OK.”

Carl Safina and his wife were strolling along a beach on Long Island when they came across a dead great shearwater, a large seabird that flies thousands of miles along the Atlantic coast each year.

“I didn’t get very far when I came across the first dead shearwater,” Safina, an ecologist and cofounder of the Safina Center, an organization that advocates for the oceans and sea animals, told The Dodo. “Then I walked about half a mile, and I could see the next one right away. A little after that, another one, and then another.”

Dead shearwaters on beach
The dead shearwaters Safina and his wife encountered on Long Island | Patricia Paladines

“It was an absolute bummer,” Safina added. “I really like those birds, and I like seeing them on the ocean at this time of the year. Obviously something very bad has happened to them, and that’s quite saddening.”

Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated incident. Not only did Safina later come across more dead shearwaters on other New York state beaches, but other people have been finding dead shearwaters along much of the New England coast.

Dead shearwater seabirds on New York beach
Patricia Paladines

The reason for their deaths? Everything points toward lack of food.

“The birds are extremely thin and anemic,” Joe Okoniewski, a wildlife pathologist with the New York State Department of Conservation who recently examined some of the dead shearwaters, told The New York Times. “The big mystery is: Why are they thin? On the surface it looks like you know what happened: They starved. But when you ask why, it becomes much more of a mystery.”

Dead shearwater seabirds on New York beach
Patricia Paladines

Dr. Jennifer Lavers, seabird ecologist and research scientist at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, has seen these kind of shearwater die-offs (also called “wrecks”) happen before in Australia, and she has an idea about what may have happened.  

“When wreck events happen in Australia, they usually happen in October and November,” Lavers told The Dodo. “The birds have just completed an 8,000 to 12,000 kilometer migration from the Bering Sea back to Australia. When they do that migration, they fly nonstop for about two weeks, and they don’t stop to feed. So you can imagine that if you’re a shearwater, and you’ve flown 10,000 kilometers … you’re going to be pretty darn hungry. So you’ve got to find food fast.”

Dead short-tailed shearwaters on the coast of Newcastle, Australia, in 2013 | Facebook/Jenn Lavers

But in recent years, shearwaters haven’t been able to find the food they desperately need to keep living.  

“That lack of prey can happen for a variety of reasons,” Lavers said. “It can be because of climate change — so the prey could be just as abundant as it’s always been, but it’s just moved elsewhere. Or we’ve overfished it [the prey].”

Dead shearwaters on beach
Dead shearwaters on the coast of Tasmania, Australia, in 2013 | Jenn Lavers

While Lavers wasn’t able to examine the dead shearwaters in New York herself, she’s pretty sure a similar thing happened to them.

“I think the birds have come back from their migrations, they’ve tried to find prey to replenish their reserves, they fail for one reason or another, and then they’re washing up on the beaches,” Lavers said. “These birds are basically telling us that things aren’t OK — not just in one part of the ocean, but in many parts of the ocean.”

Shearwaters feeding in ocean
Flesh-footed shearwaters feeding off the coast of Lord Howe Island in Australia | Jenn Lavers
If you want to help shearwaters, the best thing to do is help keep the oceans healthy. To learn more about ocean conservation and what you can do to help the animals who depend upon the ocean, go to the Safina Center’s website. You can also help rescue and rehabilitate seabirds like shearwaters by making a donation to Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project.