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The Daily Yomiuri (Japan): 4,000 oil-coated birds wash up on Hokkaido / Endangered species fall victim to oil spills

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The carcasses of more than 4,000 oil-covered wild birds have been found washed up ashore, including along the Shiretoko Peninsula, eastern Hokkaido, marking the worst disaster of its kind since the Russian tanker Nakhodka leaked oil in 1997, affecting about 1,300 seabirds.
Part of the peninsula has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If birds that have sunk or been eaten are included, it is thought that tens of thousands of wild birds might have died.
Since Japanese officials cannot cross the Russian border to investigate the problem, the cause of the disaster remains shrouded in mystery one month after the deaths were first confirmed.
A photographer found wild bird carcasses around the mouth of a river in Sharicho in the middle of the peninsula on Feb. 27. Crows were pecking at the rotting corpses.
In addition to Shiretoko, remains were also found in Koshimizucho, Hokkaido on the shores of the Okhotsk Sea.
The wild birds included endangered species such as guillemots, Brunnich's guillemots, crested auklets and slaty-backed gulls.
The Environment Ministry and the Hokkaido government have dispatched helicopters to inspect the situation further.
With ice on the sea surface and shores now melting, the number of dead birds being collected has increased rapidly.
As of March 17, the remains of 4,005 dead birds had been collected.
Even now, patrol personnel usually find more than 10 bird carcasses every time they go out on their rounds.
After dissecting the bodies, the Hokkaido government has come to believe that the birds died due to hypothermia induced by oil contamination or by drowning.
Yasushi Fukamachi, an assistant professor specializing in marine physics at Hokkaido University's Institute of Low Temperature Science, believes the carcasses were carried by currents from the eastern shores of Sakhalin over a period of one to two months.
Researchers initially believed that the wild birds had been contaminated by oil spills from pipelines in oil fields off Sakhalin.
However, more recent studies pointed to the possibility that the oil was Bunker C fuel oil, which is used by large ships, leading to the belief that the oil had come from a ship or ships rather than from oil pipelines.
A Russian government official told The Yomiuri Shimbun that many carcasses of wild birds had also been found on Kunashiri Island, one of the four disputed northern territories that the Russians refer to as the Kuril Islands.
The official suggested that an infectious bird disease might have broken out on the Japanese side of the Sea of Okhotsk.
Since no oil leaks have been confirmed in Russia or Japan, the cause of the disaster remains a mystery.
A spokesman at the First Regional Coast Guard Headquarters in Otaru, Hokkaido, said that with crab and seabird egg poaching rampant in that area, even if a refueling ship had leaked oil, it would not make a report to Russian authorities.
Susumu Chiba, a lecturer at Tokyo University of Agriculture's Faculty of Bio-Industry, said that the leaked oil might also affect scallops, shrimps and other marine life.
(Mar. 28, 2006)

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