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Coastal Algae Bloom: 'It's Like an Oil Spill, Without the Oil'

Tom Banse
10/27/2009

It's like an oil spill, but without the oil. That's how wildlife rescue people are describing an unusual red tide along the Northwest coast. The algal bloom is causing hundreds upon hundreds of dead or dying seabirds to wash up on coastal beaches. Today, the deluge of distress shows signs of tapering off.

TRANSCRIPT

You're allowed to drive on the beach on southwest Washington's Long Beach peninsula. That makes Warren Michaelis' grim task more efficient.

Warren Michaelis: "It's kind of multi–tasking. You have to drive without getting stuck and then look at the same time."

The field biologist with Washington Fish and Wildlife is looking for washed up birds, dead or alive.

Warren Michaelis: "There's a bird in the grass. Let's get out..."

Today, what he finds is mostly dead. Coast wide, the toll runs into the thousands.

Warren Michaelis: "See this green coloration, this could be the algae. The bird itself: emaciated. Eyes still fresh. It's a western grebe."

All the birds show similar signs of exhaustion, starvation, and/or hypothermia. Michaelis takes only the freshest carcasses for further scientific examination. There's way too many to collect them all.

Contact with a foamy slime seems to have stripped the water proofing from the feathers of the diving birds. Michaelis says he's never seen this sort of natural algal bloom before.

Warren Michaelis: "It's like putting them in the wash cycle of a washing machine, essentially."

Finally, the field biologist spots a bird that's still alive. He grabs a long–handled net. The loon makes a pathetic attempt to get away.

Warren Michaelis: "Watch out for the bill ... I grew up on a small farm, so learning how to handle poultry comes in handy here."

This common loon will be driven 200 miles to the Progressive Animal Welfare Society rehab center north of Seattle. There is another wildlife hospital that's much closer, but it's even more overwhelmed with feathered casualties.

Sound: Cacophony at wildlife center.

Seabirds are literally stacked three to four high in cardboard boxes and donated pet carriers. We're at the Wildlife Center of the North Coast near Astoria. Volunteers force feed bait fish to the assortment of loons, grebes, murres, and other diving birds.

Sound: "Keeping it down? Wait he's getting out!"

Barbara Linnett says the prognosis is good if they've made it this far. The birds can be nursed back to health.

Barbara Linnett: "Some of the murres are thin and cold and they will be staying a bit longer. But for the most part, these birds aren't sick. They don't have injuries. These are the survivors."

The capacity of this wildlife center should be around 100 seabirds. On Monday, the population peaked at four or five times that. Then the U.S. Coast Guard agreed to airlift more than 300 birds to California. Lieutenant Mike Angeli copiloted the C–130 Hercules cargo plane on the unconventional mission.

Mike Angeli: "The Coast Guard in general, we're a humanitarian organization. We're trying to help our community, help our country. Surprisingly once we got involved, a lot of people said sure, go ahead and do it."

Biologists say this particular red tide is not harmful to humans, pets or shellfish. Meanwhile, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and university researchers are trying to figure out what caused the deadly algal bloom in the first place. They don't have the answer, nor do they know how long this natural event might last.

I'm Tom Banse in Astoria.

© Copyright 2009, KUOW

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