The carcasses of thousands of northern gannets have blanketed the beaches of the Magdalene Islands in Quebec over the past two weeks, victims of highly contagious bird flu.
Jonathan Lapierre, Mayor of the Magdalen Islands, said, “No one told me this was happening. Obviously – we’re talking about thousands of dead birds.”
“We are not talking about waste or the normal situation. We are talking about an extraordinary event that is out of our control. Especially since we do not have an incinerator – we do not have a landfill. We are on an island!”
The Quebec Department of Wildlife says that since May 24, it has confirmed several hundred cases of highly pathogenic H5N1 in the Magdalene Islands, an archipelago of islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Lapierre said the process of disposing of all dead animals had begun. He added that the bodies must be transported by boat.
“All this is not easy given our location – the boat also carries rare people and goods,” Lapierre said. We had to manage all of these together. ”
The highly contagious virus is spreading across the country among wild and domestic birds such as turkeys, chickens and ducks.
2 million birds have been culled on farms
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has estimated that nearly two million birds in commercial farming operations have been destroyed by the virus.
Avian influenza is spreading globally, the agency said, and outbreaks have been confirmed in every county except Prince Edward Island, where domestic and commercial domestic birds have not been affected but a handful of wild birds and even some groups of foxes have tested positive.
“This year has been an unprecedented year for bird flu globally,” the agency said in a statement.
“Birds in an infected coop will all die within days if they are not mercifully killed. It is also difficult to predict how long the virus (H5N1 is highly pathogenic) currently circulating in North America. Research in Europe currently indicates that this particular strain does not appear to be very resilient and capable to maintain itself in wild bird groups.”
The first cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza likely arrived in North America at the end of winter, and include birds that migrated from Europe, says Stéphane Laer, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Montreal.
“It just happened naturally,” Lair said. “When a new virus reaches a new group, the animals have no immunity. There is no doubt that the infection rate will be high at first.”
Serge Hubert, a resident of the Magdalene Islands, said in a recent interview that he hadn’t seen so many dead gannets floating in the water before this season.
“We’ve seen them float for the last two or three weeks – dead. We fish 25 kilometers off the beaches and see the bodies all the way.”
Experts say disease in the wild is unstoppable
The Canadian Wildlife Health Association, which partners with the federal government to monitor wild birds, said that while they cannot test every dead bird, they can link most cases on the island to the H5N1 virus.
The H5N1 strain is not considered high risk to humans but spreads rapidly among birds, said Marion Galenkis, a veterinarian from the group.
“We’re testing a lot of cases right now, but we can’t take in 300 dead birds at once,” Galenkis said in a recent interview, adding that eastern suburbs in Quebec and the regions of Maurice and Monterrey have also reported cases.
“If we test 10 out of a few hundred of the same event, it’s definitely related.”
She said that while culling commercial poultry helps prevent the spread of the virus, it is nearly impossible to contain the virus in the wild.
“There’s not much we can do,” Gallinks said. “We are talking about large areas with large numbers of birds. There are a lot of diseases in the wild that we cannot control.”