Oily substance found near Savoonga remains a mystery
About a month ago, residents of St. Lawrence Island found a patch of oily, white goo on the beach, along with some dead sea birds covered in the substance. The birds and the material that seems to have killed them have since been sent to two different national laboratories, but scientists are still stumped about what the material is and how it got there.
The oil was first discovered on June 17, on a beach 20 miles from Savoonga. Residents found a dead eider duck covered in the substance and reported the incident back to the village. When they returned on the same day to take samples, they found eight short-tailed shearwaters and a partially scavenged puffin, all of which had been covered by the oil.
They send the birds and some oil samples to Gay Sheffield, who works for UAF’s Alaska Sea Grant in Nome. She called the case in to the National Response Center, which receives reports of environmental emergencies from across the U.S. She sent the samples to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, the agency managing sea birds, which then forwarded them to national laboratories for analysis.
The birds went to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, where they were necropsied and the oil was found inside their lungs. The lab determined that they had probably died from choking, although they had been in bad shape even before they came across the mystery material.
“The birds were in a compromised position as well given a lack of body fat reserves, as well as muscle atrophy,” said Robb Kaler, who is in charge of seabird die-off response planning at the USFWS. For the last few years, emaciated seabirds have washed up on shores all over Alaska in a series of large-scale die-offs. “But the cause of death was probably due to ingestion of that oily substance,” he said.
The oil itself was sent to Louisiana State University, where NOAA sends oil spill samples for identification. The lab specializes in petroleum and could only conclude that the oil from St. Lawrence Island was not petroleum-based. Instead it was biogenic, possibly cooking oil from a ship’s kitchen or a byproduct fish oil produced by an industrial fish processing vessel.
“The next step is taking lab results and finding another laboratory that specializes not necessarily in petroleum but in animal fats,” Angela Matz, USFWS’s spill response coordinator, said. They have a chromatograph of the oil – like a snapshot of its chemical makeup – and are looking for a lab that can identify its source. She didn’t know when they’d have results, but “we’re trying to get those results out to the community when we get them,” she said.
The U.S. Coast Guard also responded to the report of a spill, but representative Nathan Littlejohn said little could be done until the source of the oil was identified. “We share the community’s concern about the source of the spill and its impacts on subsistence resources,” he said. “We are also concerned about the possibility of illegal dumping of oil at sea.”
Ben Pungowiyi is a longtime resident of Savoonga, where people rely on harvesting seabirds for food. He said the oiled birds raised concerns in his community, which is already stressed about large-scale environmental changes and the threat of COVID-19. “This was the first time we’d seen this substance in our area,” he said.
When people returned to the beach more recently, however, no oil was found, perhaps indicating that the event was a small-scale or “ephemeral” spill. Pungowiyi suggested that it could be related to the increased traffic of fishing and shipping vessels he’s noticed near the island in recent years.
Marine traffic through the Bering Strait has been on the rise, and the northward movement of commercially valuable cod and pollock has brought shipping fleets closer to St. Lawrence Island. In the U.S., dumping any kind of oil into the ocean is illegal, and Coast Guard cutters regularly patrol the Bering Sea to make sure U.S. ships follow the rules. Just 100 miles west of St. Lawrence Island, though, the Russian fishing fleet has been concentrated in the Gulf of Anadyr, and lack of communication between U.S. and Russian maritime agencies makes it unclear what Russian vessels might be dumping.
But until a more detailed analysis of the oil comes back, no conclusion can be reached. USFWS says that regional residents who find oiled wildlife should take samples in paper, glass or aluminum foil – to avoid contaminating the oil with plastic – and call in the incident. Locally, residents can call Alaska Sea Grant agent Gay Sheffield at 907-434-1149 or Brandon Ahmasuk, Subsistence Director at Kawerak, at 907-443-6265. They can also call The U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802 or reach the USFWS Dead Bird Hotline at 1-866-527-3358 or via email at AK_MBM@FWS.GOV.