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Puffin chick ready to be released, Aug. 29, 2017

An annual initiative to rescue lost baby puffins in Newfoundland has been temporarily suspended as hundreds of dead seabirds wash up on beaches around the island.

Suzanne Dooley, conservation director with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s local chapter, says the decision to suspend the organization’s puffin and petrel patrols this year was easy in one way, but hard in another.

Dooley says it was easy because the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian flu is making its way through the province’s wild seabird population, and pausing the program would protect its volunteers.

But she said it was difficult because the patrols means so much to the residents of Witless Bay, N.L., which sits across from an ecological reserve that is home to more than 260,000 pairs of the plump, orange-billed little birds.

Beverly Dawe, the province’s chief veterinary officer, says dead birds are now washing up on Witless Bay shores and officials have taken samples for testing, with results expected next week.

Dawe says her department is acting on the assumption that avian flu is to blame, after preliminary test earlier this month showed the disease was responsible for thousands of seabird deaths along Newfoundland’s Burin and southern Avalon Peninsulas.

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