Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
In what could only be described as a horrific scene straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, it seems seagulls have taken a particular liking to the flesh of whales off the coast of Argentina. For anyone who can recall the frightful scenes in the movie ℠The Birds´–where Tippi Hedren´s character is ravaged by pecking gulls, ravens and crows–this Argentine phenomenon might be as equally disturbing.
Gulls have become a real hazard for endangered Southern Right Whales in one of their prime breeding grounds in Argentina, a protected gulf along the city of Puerto Madryn. It began only as bizarre bird behavior, but over time has turned out to be a horrifying experience for the gentle whales, as the seagulls have learned that pecking at the mammal´s backs will net them a regular seafood dinner.
In order to tackle this issue head-on, police in the Argentine province of Chubut have created a program to shoot and kill seagulls in order to stop them from feeding on the large marine animals. Biologist Marcelo Bertellotti, of the National Patagonia Center, a government-sponsored conservation agency, noted that seagulls are becoming very populous in the region and have begun attacking the whales with brute force as they surface for air, pecking and tearing away at their flesh to eat the skin and blubber.
The attacks are now becoming so severe that officials see no other way but to kill the birds and diminish their numbers.
However, the plan is being criticized heavily by environmentalists who say humans are the real problem, creating so much garbage that the gull population has exploded.
While both sides agree that gull attacks on the whales is a huge threat to the mammals, Argentine officials add that the region´s tourism industry is also threatened as well; not just because tourists are less willing to watch the horrific acts of birds feeding on whales, but also because the whales themselves are surfacing less often.
The seagull feeding issue was first discovered by city officials about ten years ago, but has gotten worse in recent years, largely because the gull population has ballooned. Each time the whales surface, the gulls know it´s dinner time. They swoop down and commence with dinner.
Officials acknowledge that human detritus has been the main reason the gull population has grown, as fishermen continue to dump heaps of fish parts directly into the ocean, and open-air dumps still exist in the region.
Argentine newspaper Clarin reports that, to begin fixing the problem, police will go out on motorboats and selectively shoot at seagulls who attack whales. While it is not yet clear what type of ammo police will use, it may use rubber bullets, said the paper.
Bertellotti told Clarin that the gulls attack whales for about a quarter of the time they spend near the surface of the water, which has caused the whales to spend less time at the surface, reducing the frequency of tourists catching glimpses of the gentle giants.
Bertellotti said the whales have dramatically changed their behavior in response to the gull attacks: Instead of breaching the water and displaying their tails, they now only rise a few inches above the surface for a quick breath of air and then return to the safety of the underwater environment.
He noted that shooting the gulls does have consequences. The birds will need to be gathered quickly after taking them down to keep other marine animals from feeding on the gulls and potentially swallowing any ammunition still in the bird, potentially causing further damage to marine wildlife.
The move is Bertellotti´s “100-day Whale-Gull Action Plan.” It got the approval by the Chubut government, and has been defended by some other provincial officials.
“We are preparing a pilot plan that seeks to stop the damage from the gulls that pick at the flesh of the whales, because this is putting at risk the resource. It will be a minimal intervention to protect the life of the southern right whale and thus provide a response to the complaints of the sightseeing businesses that operate in the place,” Gov. Martin Buzzi posted on his Facebook page.
Whale-watching is big business for Chubut. And the southern right whale has recovered to about 8 percent of their original population since becoming a protected species worldwide, and hundreds come to the waters in the gulf of the Valdez Peninsula to give birth to a new generation of right whales between July and December.
The experience of watching the magnificent creatures surface is truly breathtaking, but the gull attacks, which were rare until recently, have hurt the business of tourism, said Milko Schvartzman, who coordinates the oceans campaign for Greenpeace in Latin America.
Tourism is suffering along with the whales. “It´s not so pleasant anymore,” Schvartzman said.
The issue has not only drawn fire from environmentalists who are calling for landfills to change their dumping policies and for fishermen to stop polluting the waterways with dead fish parts, but Chubut´s provincial legislature has also opposed the move, according to Clarin.
Chubut´s environmental minister, Eduardo Maza, blamed the problem on previous governments, and said the province is now working on permanent solutions. Shooting the gulls “is surely not the most pleasant measure, but it´s necessary to do something to control a situation that has been growing after many years of inaction,” Maza said.
Maza said the government is working on the sanitation issue and plans to “inaugurate garbage-separation plants.”
“All the garbage in the protected Peninsula Valdes area that isn´t recyclable will be properly disposed of, which will enable us to mitigate the open-air garbage dumps,” he added.
Schvartzman said that if humans don´t solve the problem quickly, the whales will simply stop coming.