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What are the factors behind the spread of avian flu?

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An “apocalyptic” mass mortality event that has left thousands of sea lions and elephant seals dead on the beaches of South America is raising alarms among some California sea mammal experts who fear similar scenes could play out along California’s Pacific Coast and other continents as the H5N1 bird flu continues its march across the globe.

The highly pathogenic avian influenza virus has become notorious for its devastating affects on wild and domestic bird populations over the last four years, but only recently has it inflicted so many deaths in a mammal population.

Up until now, the ability of the virus to jump from mammal to mammal has been limited, but the scale of infections and deaths in South America has raised troubling questions about whether something has changed.

While it remains unclear whether this particular strain of H5N1 has improved its ability to pass easily between mammals, such a development would have potentially devastating consequences for endangered and non-endangered species alike.

The disease “presents an existential threat to the world’s biodiversity,” wrote Chris Walzer, executive director of health for the Wildlife Conservation Society in a January statement, noting that the scene of dead elephant seals could “only be described as apocalyptic.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the H5N1 viruses circulating in birds “are believed to pose a low risk to the general public in the United States; however, people who have job-related or recreational exposures to infected birds may be at higher risk of infection and should take appropriate precautions outlined in CDC guidance.”

The World Health Organization has also deemed the risk of human-to-human transmission to be low, and notes that candidate vaccines have been developed for pandemic preparedness.

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Yet the speed with which the virus has destroyed once-thriving animal populations is breathtaking, said Marcela Uhart, a wildlife veterinarian with UC Davis’ One Health institute, who is based in Argentina.

In October, the mortality rate for newborn elephant seal pups reached 96% on one beach in Argentina — astronomically higher than the 0.8% mortality rate observed there in 2022.

“Ten days and it’s done. There’s nothing left alive,” Uhart said.

Die-offs have also been observed in South American dolphins and fur seals. And the virus is practically knocking on Antarctica’s front door, where more than 100 million birds, including colony-living penguins, and marine mammals congregate.

“There’s climate change and habitat destruction,” which are taking their toll on the planet’s wildlife species, said Rebecca Duerr, an avian veterinarian with International Bird Rescue in Long Beach. “And then this. It’s grim.”

In California, some experts say they worry about the vulnerability of sea lions and sea otters.

“California has been spared some of the huge die-off events being seen somewhere else in the world. But we still have species that are very vulnerable to it. We’re not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination,” Duerr said.

Sea lion pups crawl onto a beach.

Sea lion pups congregate at a rookery at Boomer Beach, next to Point La Jolla, in San Diego, in August 2020.

(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Colony nesting of seabirds and breeding of marine mammals occurs all along the California Coast, the Channel Islands and Farallon Islands. They are seasonally populated by such species as terns, sea lions and sea otters, among others.

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“There’s a whole lot of concern still for what will happen in the bigger picture over time,” she said. “This summer is breeding season, the time that other areas of the world have seen huge die-offs at breeding colonies.”

The effects wouldn’t be limited to just the infected animals either, Duerr said. These animals are critical within wider ecosystems. Guano produced from breeding bird colonies provides nutrients for marine invertebrates and fish, for instance.

And if sea otters were to suffer such losses, that would endanger the health of California’s vast kelp forests, which would be left prey to sea urchins, said Christine Johnson, professor of epidemiology and ecosystem health at UC Davis.

And although Southern and Northern hemisphere populations of marine mammals don’t have much, if any contact, Johnson said the world is changing so quickly, we can’t really be sure about anything.

“The distribution of marine species is largely dictated on where their food goes, which itself is dictated by ocean trends and warming,” Johnson said. “Are there species that are now overlapping that hadn’t been before, based on climate or other factors?”

She said forces such as climate change and habitat destruction could have played a role in the virus’ geographical expansion, as well as its initial and sustained grasp on wildlife.

“There’s increasing evidence that pandemics that come from wildlife, in particular, are increasing in frequency,” Johnson said. “There’s not a lot of segregation or separation between wild animals and their pathogens” and domestic animals and people.

Until recently, highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI, was considered strictly a poultry disease. It would flare up here and there — primarily in Asia — and get stomped out quickly by killing all the birds on an infected farm.

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But in 2002, the virus jumped to wild birds, and in 2005, it had spread to Eastern Europe, where seven people were infected after de-feathering wild swans. Four of the people died. Nine years later, the disease reached North America — presumably via Alaska, where birds from around the world migrate and feast during the summer. And although it died down for a bit in Canada and the U.S. — flaring up occasionally in Asia, Europe and Africa — it came back with a vengeance in 2021.

Since that time, not only have hundreds of millions of domestic birds been culled, but countless numbers of wild birds and animals have contracted the virus.

Julianna Lenoch, the national coordinator of wildlife services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said that while scientists are waiting for genetic information from South America, there is no “evidence that is of high concern yet in the United States, but I think watching mammal spillover and potential mammalian spread is something the global community is looking for.”

The agency routinely samples wild birds, and only samples mammals in which there is suspicion.

“We pick them up from state agencies or wildlife rehabilitation facilities or from someone who has an indication of suspicion … so, what we have is probably an undercount,” she said.

But so far, the situation in North America is different from the “craziness” being seen in South America.

In the United States and Canada, the only mammals that have gotten the disease — such as foxes, skunks, coyotes and bears — are those known to scavenge on dead birds. There is no indication there is any mammal-to-mammal passage.

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Immigration in Maine Addressing Labor Shortage Could Set Trend for U.S.

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A significant labor gap in Maine’s lobster industry is being filled by immigrants, shedding light on the critical role that foreign-born workers are likely to play in the U.S. economy as the native-born population ages. Maine, known for its abundant lobster population, is grappling with an aging workforce that is increasingly unable to sustain the demands of the thriving lobster industry, valued at $1 billion.

Ben Conniff, a founder of Luke’s Lobster, underscores the importance of immigrants in sustaining the natural resources economy of the state, as many native-born workers are not inclined towards manufacturing work in food processing. Since its establishment in 2013, Luke’s Lobster has heavily relied on immigrants to staff its lobster processing plant, highlighting the vital role played by foreign-born workers in filling labor gaps.

With Maine boasting the oldest population in the U.S., with a median age of 45.1, the state offers a glimpse into the economic future of America, where immigrants are poised to be a crucial source of new workers and economic vitality in the coming years.

As immigration continues to be a hotly debated topic in the country, the influx of immigrants has been instrumental in boosting the American economy’s potential. The Congressional Budget Office has revised upwards its population and economic growth projections for the next decade, attributing the growth to the wave of newcomers entering the workforce.

Maine’s initiatives to attract and integrate immigrants into the workforce, such as the creation of an Office of New Americans, reflect the state’s proactive approach towards addressing labor shortages. Private companies like Luke’s Lobster have also taken steps to diversify and supplement the aging lobster fishing industry by training immigrants and minorities in lobster fishing and licensing processes.

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Chadai Gatembo, an 18-year-old immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, exemplifies the success story of immigrants finding opportunities in Maine. Despite facing challenges on his journey to the U.S., Gatembo is now on the path to becoming a full-fledged lobsterman, showcasing the potential for immigrants to thrive in new industries.

The influx of immigrants is not without its challenges, with issues of work authorization and economic stability confronting many newcomers. Adriana Hernandez, a mother of four from Venezuela, highlights the economic hardship faced by immigrants awaiting work permits, underscoring the barriers faced by unauthorized workers in integrating into the labor market.

Despite these challenges, the overall impact of immigration on the U.S. economy is significant. Immigrants have helped to bolster job growth, insulate the economy against downturns, and contribute to a more diverse and innovative workforce. Economists predict that immigration will play a crucial role in addressing labor shortages and demographic shifts as the native-born population ages.

The entrepreneurial spirit of immigrants like Chenda Chamreoun, who has risen from lobster cleaning to a quality assurance supervisor and now aims to start her own catering business, showcases the economic potential of foreign-born workers. Immigrants tend to be more entrepreneurial, adding to the innovation and productivity of the American economy.

J. Edward Moreno contributed reporting from New York, and Zolan Kanno-Youngs from Washington.

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