Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tsunami death toll at Midway alone: more than 110,000 albatrosses

Federal wildlife officials are now estimating that more than 110,000 albatrosses were killed at Midway Atoll alone, from the tsunami waves that swept across nesting areas March 11.

“Surveys of the Refuge reveal that more than 110,000 Laysan and black-footed albatross chicks – about 22 percent of this year’s albatross production – were lost as a result of the tsunami and two severe winter storms preceding it in January and February. At least 2000 adults were also killed,” said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in an emailed statement.

(Image: Total losses at Laysan Island are not known. This image, taken before the Laysan federal wildlife crew was evacuated, displays some of the impact. The team reported that the entire coast was inundated by the tsunami, in many cases well into the vegetated areas. The debris includes remains of a research station that was overwashed. Credit: USFWS Pacific.)

Four major waves crashed through Midway Atoll, entirely overwashing small Spit Island, and partially overwashing Sand and Eastern Islands. The albatross are ground-nesting birds. Only four chicks remain on Spit, which once held nearly 1,500.

Immediately following the tsunami, Refuge staff estimated tens of thousands of albatross chicks had been lost, along with about 1000 adults. After initially concentrating on freeing approximately 300 entrapped or waterlogged birds with assistance from a small group of visitors there participating in a natural history tour, and waiting for danger from the tsunami to pass, biologists turned their attention to surveying the damage. “The results were both startling and disheartening,” Stieglitz said.

For example, in early January, Spit Island held 1498 Laysan and 22 black-footed albatross nests. After losses from the January 14 and February 11 storms and the March 10-11 tsunami, only 4 chicks remain on Spit.

“We are very fortunate not to have suffered any loss of human life or other tragedy, as have the people in Japan, and for that we are very grateful,” said Barry Stieglitz, Project Leader for the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

“This tsunami was indeed a disaster at many levels, including for wildlife.”

A star of the atoll is the endangered short-tailed albatross chick, the first born in the Hawaiian Islands in recorded history. It was washed off its nest, but survived. However, its parents have not returned to feed it.

“Since the chick is incapable of fending for itself, the Service will carefully consider whether hand-rearing this bird is appropriate if it is determined that it is not being fed by its parents,” the statement said.

Biologists do not know how many burrow-nesting Bonin petrels were lost, drowned or trapped underground. Their nesting holes in many cases were covered over with coral rubble and sand. Small numbers of red-tailed tropicbirds, red-footed boobies and great frigatebirds were reported lost. There were no recorded deaths of green sea turtles or monk seals.

Federal officials still do not have a clear understanding of the impact on wildlife at other remote islands. Many threatened or endangered animals were potentially impacted. One fear is for the Laysan finch population that was translocated to the low island of Pearl and Hermes Atoll could have been wiped out.

“It is possible the entire translocated population of endangered Laysan finches on Pearl and Hermes Reef were roosting on the ground when the tsunami likely overwashed the low-lying islands there,” the statement said.

But at this point, no one knows for certain.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

For more information on the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, see here.

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