Wildlife rescuers and lifeguards have responded to an upsetting incident involving mass seabird deaths.
Having flown 15,000km from Alaska, dozens of short-tailed shearwaters washed up on Saturday afternoon at Bondi Beach. Reports of the birds continued through the weekend, with over 82 more found south at Cronulla the following day. Several exhausted surviving birds were rescued from turbulent waters and taken into care.
Over the last decade, reports of shearwater deaths have been on the increase since the 1990s. Volunteers from WIRES told Yahoo News Australia this is one of the worst they’ve seen in recent years.
Despite being noticeably pregnant and just four weeks away from giving birth, WIRES rescuer Penny McMullin joined a handful of dedicated volunteers at Cronulla on Sunday.
“Unfortunately there were fairly rough surf conditions and then when you look down to the sand where there was seaweed littering the beach, there were also big clumps of shearwaters,” she said.
“They were just dotted all the way along, it was really upsetting. There were some living ones sprinkled along the beach and some bobbing in the water. We could see they were struggling so we were lucky surf lifesaving volunteers were able to jump in the water and grab them.”
Why large numbers of shearwaters are dying
Already stretched throughout spring as they respond to orphaned baby birds, rescuers and carers fear they won’t have the capacity to respond to shearwaters if events like this become more regular.
It's feared Sydney could experience regular mass death events on a scale similar to regular flying fox mass mortalities. During extreme weather events, thousands of bats regularly succumb to the heat, a situation made worse by climate change and habitat loss.
While last weekend's events were distressing they are less significant than the million bird deaths that occurred in 2013.
Another mass death occurred in 2019, this time in Alaska when 6000 shearwaters were found dead. These deaths were linked to a lack of food caused by unusually warm waters. The introduction of salmon into Alaskan and Russian breeding grounds is also thought to be a contributing issue to their decline as the fish eat the shearwater's main food source, krill.
Some suspect plastic ingestion could also be harming the species more generally. Some studies suggest more than 90 per cent of seabirds have plastic in their systems as they commonly mistake it for food. Containing no nutritional value it builds up in birds' stomachs and weakens them, and in March it was also linked to the discovery of a new disease that destroys tissue.
Should we be worried about the dead shearwaters?
Believed to number around 18 million birds, shearwaters are considered abundant, but their population is decreasing, according to the IUCN Red List.
While finding such high numbers of shearwaters dead on Sydney beaches is disturbing to see, the NSW Department of Environment notes the number of deaths is small when compared to the population.
Its senior threatened species scientist Nicholas Carlile told Yahoo News Australia deaths during migration are a natural pressure the birds face during the journey.
"It is part of the natural process that we have within our ocean environments, which by their very nature are stochastic," he said. "So there is huge variation with food availability."
He believes that despite the pressure of climate change and changing food resources, shearwaters will adapt.
By the time they come into care, they are usually too sick to be treated, so Mr Carlile is pragmatic when it comes to the response. "Most of these birds will not survive. They're already beyond the point of caring. So they should just be euthanised... or let nature take its course," he said.
Where do the shearwaters fly?
After their annual migration, most shearwaters eventually find their way to islands throughout Bass Strait and the Victorian coastline.
While much of their habitat has been destroyed for coastal developments, thousands of essential breeding burrows remain protected. You can watch a video showing tens of thousands of the birds returning to feed their chicks at Philip Island below.
Concern volunteers stretched as wildlife casualties rise
Like the SES, lifesavers, and rural fire services, Australia’s wildlife response teams are also largely staffed by volunteers. They balance full-time work, and family life, with caring and rescuing for wildlife in need. Frustratingly much of the problem they’re responding to is triggered by preventable events like car strikes from speeding, and government-approved habitat clearing for human development, as is being seen in southwest Sydney and the Gold Coast.
While many of us were enjoying time with friends and family over the weekend, volunteers from WIRES, Sydney Wildlife Rescue and Australian Seabird Rescue filled garbage bags with dead shearwaters. It’s work like this, along with the trauma of responding to so much death, that leads many volunteers to eventually give up and leave.
“I love this work, but it’s also quite depressing,” Eliana Leopold told Yahoo News Australia on Sunday night after another day attending to shearwaters at Bondi.
“I was away last night, but I came back early, because of the stress this puts on the wildlife sector. It’s not like there is an abundance of volunteers to help with situations like this. If Australia genuinely cares about its wildlife then relying so much on volunteers is not a sustainable approach.
“Sometimes I wish I could just not look at animals anymore, and just go back to my merry way and blissfully not to worry. But once you see it, it's very hard to unsee it.”
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