FAIRFIELD, California, October 27, 2009 (ENS) – Waves of toxic algae have killed thousands of sea birds on the Washington and Oregon coasts since late September, and a widespread rescue effort is underway to save birds trapped in the slimy tide.

Oregon and Washington wildlife rescue centers are overwhelmed with large numbers of wet, cold, and dying sea birds soiled by the unusual sea slime, according to the International Bird Rescue Research Center based in Fairfield, which is helping the injured birds.

The first group of 150 slimed sea birds was driven by van Saturday from Portland, Oregon to the IBRRC’s Fairfield bird center for treatment.

On Monday, the U.S. Coast Guard lent a hand. Using a C-130 plane, a crew flew an additional 305 harmed seabirds birds from Astoria, Oregon to McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, California.

The birds being treated at the IBRRC center include grebes, murres, red throated loons, Pacific loons, common loons and scoters.

A single-cell algae called Akashiwo sanguinea is to blame, says Julia Parrish, a marine biologist and professor at the University of Washington who leads the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, a citizen science program in Washington and Oregon.

The algae has been seen off the California coast, where it has killed hundreds of seabirds, but it never before happened in Oregon and Washington.

Stretching from the northern Oregon coast to the tip of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, this is the largest Akashiwo sanguinea bloom ever on the West Coast, Parrish says.

While Saturday’s transport of affected birds was made possible through assistance from PETCO Foundation, the Oregon Humane Society, and the Hedinger Family, additional costs will mount as these birds are seen through the cleaning and rehabilitation process, says the IBRRC.

Crewmembers from Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento load pallets full of birdcages onto a C-130 Hercules aircraft. October 26, 2009. (Photo courtesy USCG)

Marine birds are suited for life on water, not land. To avoid additional harm while in care, they require special housing, bedding, and swims in warm water pools. Even though their stay in captivity is expected to be just seven to 10 days, the cost to care for them will be “exorbitant,” the bird rescue organization says.

Because of the sheer number of casualties, IBRRC says it is treating this emergency as an oil spill, with one significant difference – there is no oil.

“This means that there is no responsible party and therefore no financial support for our rescue effort,” says IBRRC.

The IBRRC has noticed an increase in unusual events like this one. In November 2007, hundreds of soaked marine birds stranded themselves in Monterey, California. “What was then a mystery can now be blamed on an abundance of a certain phytoplankton – a harmful algal bloom,” the organization said today. The cause for the growing numbers of these harmful blooms is still in question.

In the current situation, a particular species of phytoplankton, typically seen off the coast of California, was found in the northern waters in extraordinarily high numbers, potentially linked to warmer than usual water temperature.

Stormy weather churned the phytoplankton bloom into a soap-like foam. For aquatic birds this can be deadly.

It is the structure of feathers and their alignment that insulates a bird from water and wind. When something disrupts the arrangement of feathers, whether it is oil, dirt, or a surfactant, the birds are exposed to the elements and will quickly become saturated and cold. If they do not get to land, they will drown.

Anyone wishing to help is being asked to assist as they can. Please call the IBRRC volunteer line at 707-207-0380 ext. 109.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.