Sheffield, Ahmasuk honored for seabird mortality response

Sheffield and Ahmasuk receiving their awards from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Left to right: Robb Kaler, Wildlife Biologist, USFWS Migratory Bird Management, Region 7; Gay Sheffield, Marine Advisory Agent, Alaska Sea Grant; Brandon Ahmasuk, Subsistence Director, Kawerak, Inc.; Kathy Kuletz, Seabird Section Chief, USFWS Migratory Bird Management, Region 7. Photo courtesy USFWS.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has honored Alaska Sea Grant’s Gay Sheffield and Brandon Ahmasuk of Kawerak, Inc. for leading a coordinated response to seabird mortality events across the Bering and Chukchi region.

Since 2013, Sheffield, an associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and Ahmasuk have been collaborating with the Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, tribes, and others. They are trying to document and understand why thousands of seabirds died in the Bering Strait region of western Alaska. Last month, they received the Region 7 Director’s Excellence Award in the Outstanding Partner category.

Mass mortality events involving seabirds occurred in the Bering and Chukchi region in 2013, 2017 and 2018. Residents of coastal communities found thousands of bird carcasses scattered along the shore during these events. The 2013 die-off event led to the documentation of the first cases of Avian cholera in Alaska, as well as the first cases in seabirds. In 2018 alone, approximately 1,500 murres, fulmars, shearwaters, puffins, kittiwakes and auklets were found dead. Starvation was the primary cause of death in the seabirds during 2017 and 2018 and is most likely due to the northern Bering Sea ecosystem transitioning as the loss of sea ice allows for once distinct northern and southern Bering Sea ecosystems to merge.

Sheffield and Ahmasuk helped gather accurate reports from coastal communities over an enormous geographic range, while also working to obtain carcasses for examination by the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center.

“Without Gay and Brandon’s reports and efforts to collect carcasses, the Service would not have the depth and precision of information, outreach, or data access that we do,” according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service award nomination letter.

Seabirds are an important subsistence food source throughout western Alaska. Die-offs cause public health concerns and threaten the food security of remote coastal communities where legal seabird and egg harvesting helps provide nutritional, cultural, and economic well-being.

“Sea ice has a two-fold effect on the northern Bering Sea ecosystem by creating a thermal barrier between the northern colder marine ecosystem and the southern warmer marine ecosystem. Additionally, sea ice acts as a greenhouse window during the cold winter months and allows cold-adapted algae to grow. This provides an extra abundance of food for all types of marine wildlife. Without the ice, the two ecosystems are morphing, with less algae—less food—for the Bering Sea animals,” Sheffield said.

She and Ahmasuk will continue to work with western Alaskan tribes, communities and government agencies to facilitate communication and respond to the current issues.

“While many agencies may not be willing to base staff in western Alaska regional hub locations such as Nome or Bethel or Kotzebue, we will continue to work to improve communication and understanding,” Sheffield said.