Charlie Buttrey

April 3, 2024

This can’t be good.

Avian influenza isn’t just killing birds. It’s killing tens of thousands of seals and sea lions in different corners of the world, disrupting ecosystems and flummoxing scientists who don’t see a clear way to slow the devastating virus.

The worldwide bird flu outbreak that began in 2020 has led to the deaths of millions of domesticated birds and spread to wildlife all over the globe. This virus isn’t thought to be a major threat to humans, but its spread in farming operations and wild ecosystems has caused widespread economic turmoil and environmental disruptions.

Seals and sea lions, in places as far apart as Maine and Chile, appear to be especially vulnerable to the disease, scientists said. The virus has been detected in seals on the east and west coasts of the U.S., leading to deaths of more than 300 seals in New England and a handful more in Puget Sound in Washington. The situation is even more dire in South America, where more than 20,000 sea lions have died in Chile and Peru and thousands of elephant seals have died in Argentina.

The virus can be controlled in domesticated animals, but it can spread unchecked in wildlife and marine mammals such as South America’s seals that lacked prior exposure to it have suffered devastating consequences. The virus is still spreading and was detected in mainland Antarctica for the first time in February.

“The loss of wildlife at the current scale presents an unprecedented risk of wildlife population collapse, creating an ecological crisis,” the World Organization for Animal Health, an intergovernmental organization, said in a statement.

Some scientists and environmental advocates say there could be a link between the outbreaks and climate change and warming oceans. Warmer sea temperatures off northern Chile decrease the population of forage fish, and that makes sea lions weaker and more susceptible to disease.

Even seals in aquariums are not considered completely safe from bird flu. The New England Aquarium, where outdoor harbor seal exhibits delight thousands of visitors every year, has taken strict sanitation precautions to prevent transmission of the virus to its animals. Staff aren’t allowed to bring backyard poultry products to the aquarium, and an awning protects the seal exhibit from birds that could carry the virus, she said.

© 2020 Charlie Buttrey Law by Nomad Communications