Gannet die-off in Virginia

20 03 2009
Chesapeake Bay. The Gannets were found in Norfolk, VA (at the bottom of the map)

Chesapeake Bay. The Gannets were found in Norfolk, VA (at the bottom of the map)

SEANET received word this week of a number of “large birds” found dead on a beach in Norfolk, Virginia. A concerned resident contacted the USDA who headed out to the beach and found five Northern Gannet carcasses. The finding has generated a flurry of emails between seabird experts up and down the east coast. The USDA took their standard samples and reported that the birds appeared to have been in the water for some time.

As with any die-off event, regardless of scale, all possibilities must be considered until more information is available. Trauma, disease, toxin, and entanglement in fishing gear are just some of the potential causes of such die-offs.

Entanglement is certainly high on the list given the circumstances of this particular die-off, and Gina Shield, Fishery Biologist for NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, reports that their fisheries observers “frequently document fishery interactions between Northern Gannets and commercial fisheries in the Winter/Spring in the Mid-Atlantic.  Interactions occur primarily in herring/mackerel trawl, gillnet and beach seine and often multiple birds are taken on a given trip.  We haven’t documented any NOGA takes in Feb or March in that area but that is likely a function of  lack of coverage.”

Additionally, Doug Forsell, Migratory Bird Biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tells us “This is a regular occurrence in southern Virginia at this time of year as large numbers of gannets, common and red-throated loons, and red-breasted mergansers are drowned in gillnets as they move up the coast.” Doug also points out that these birds are usually otherwise healthy, and not emaciated, though they may show signs of trauma from the entanglement.

This points out the importance of a full investigation into die-offs, since without a thorough examination of the affected birds, it is impossible to determine a cause of death, or even to rule out any of the potential causes. Ideally, the birds would be submitted for postmortem examinations and testing. The mid-Atlantic is, at this point, outside of SEANET’s reach, and we currently have no volunteer presence there. We appreciate the information from all the parties who have been involved in discussions of this die-off, and it underscores the need for continued communication. SEANET also sees the mid-Atlantic as its major priority for future expansion, once our southeast and NewEngland programs are stable and fully sustainable.

We will keep you informed of any further developments on this story, so stay tuned to the blog.


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