The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice: Argentines plan to shoot gulls to save the whales

Argentines plan to shoot gulls to save the whales

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — What began as bizarre bird behavior has turned into something out of a horror film for threatened whales in Argentina, where seagulls have learned that pecking at the whales’ backs can get them a regular seafood dinner.Seagull attacks on southern right whales have become so common now that authorities are planning to shoot the gulls in hopes of reducing their population.

Environmentalists say the plan is misguided and that humans are the real problem, creating so much garbage that the gull population has exploded.

Both sides agree that the gull attacks in one of the whales’ prime birthing grounds is not only threatening the marine mammals, but the region’s tourism industry as well, by turning whale-watching from a magical experience into something sad and gruesome.

Seagulls around the city of Puerto Madryn discovered about a decade ago that by pecking at the whales as they come up for air, they can create open wounds. Then, each time the whales surface, it’s dinner time: Gulls swoop down and dig in, cutting away skin and blubber with their beaks and claws.

The problem has only grown more severe since then as more gulls caught on and the bird population exploded due to easy access to human detritus — not only open-air garbage heaps but fish parts as well, dumped directly into the water by fishermen and a seafood packing plant.

“It’s not just that the gulls are attacking the whales, but that they’re feeding from them, and this way of feeding is a habit that is growing and becoming more frequent,” said Marcelo Bertellotti, who works for the National Patagonia Center, a government-sponsored conservation agency. “It really worries us because the damage they’re doing to the whales is multiplying, especially to infant whales that are born in these waters.”

Whales also are changing their behavior in response: Instead of breaching the water and dramatically displaying their tails, they rise just barely enough to breathe through their blow-holes before descending to safety, Bertellotti said.

Bertellotti’s answer: Shoot the gulls that display this behavior with air rifles and hunting guns, and recover each downed bird before they are eaten along with the ammunition, causing still more damage to marine life. His “100-day Whale-Gull Action Plan” was approved by the government of Chubut, and provincial officials came out Tuesday in defense of it.

“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. Southern right whales have recovered to about 8 percent of their original population since becoming a protected species worldwide, and hundreds come to the relatively calm and warm waters of the gulf formed by the Valdez Peninsula to give birth and raise their newborns each July to December.

Seeing them surface from nearby boats can be a magical experience, and gull attacks were rare until about eight years ago, said Milko Schvartzman, who coordinates the oceans campaign for Greenpeace in Latin America.

But more gulls have caught on, and their population has boomed to the point where whales are attacked at least every fourth time they surface, he said.

Now the tourists are suffering along with the whales. “It’s not so pleasant anymore,” Schvartzman said.

Environmentalists say the only way to effectively reduce the seagull population is to deny the birds food by closing open-air garbage dumps around the gulf and stopping people from dumping fish parts. Activists have been lobbying Chubut for many years to develop plans to reduce, recycle and properly contain garbage and strictly regulate fishing, but politicians have resisted, Schvartzman said.

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.

“At year’s end, we’re going to inaugurate garbage-separation plants,” Maza said. “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.”

Schvartzman said that if humans don’t solve the problem quickly, the whales will simply stop coming.

Source: CBS NEWS

Argentinian gulls are eating whales (or at least bits of whales)

 Mariano Sironi, Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas, Argentina, via BBC

Like most seagulls, the kelp gull is an opportunist. It will catch fish and other small prey, but it’s not above scavenging at landfill sites. And off the southern coast of Argentina, some kelp gulls have developed a taste for whale.

Between June and December, Southern right whales gather to breed in the waters off Peninsula Valdes in Argentina, and every year, thousands of tourists go out to watch them.  Kelp gulls are watching too. As the whales surface for air, the birds land and rip pieces of skin and blubber form their backs, inflicting gaping wounds up to 20 centimetres long. The whales violently arch their backs to submerge whatever they can below the water, before hurriedly swimming away.

The first of these attacks was documented in 1972, and they have been getting worse. In 1974, just 1 per cent of whales had gull-inflicted wounds. By 2008, 77 per cent of them carried such injuries.

It certainly doesn’t help that the gull population has exploded in the last 25 years, probably because human dumps and fisheries have provided them with a glut of food. The behaviour may also be spreading between the birds, with new individuals learning to peck the whales after their attention is directed to the blubbery buffets by their peers.

Babies suffer most. A few years ago, Mario Sironi found that mother-calf pairs account for 40 per cent of whale sightings, but 80 per cent of gull attacks. Ana Fazio from CONICET, an Argentinian institution, has now confirmed this trend. She spent more than 1,000 hours over three years watching the gulls and the whales, and found that most of the attacks were directed at mother-calf pairs, and most often at the calves – perhaps their rough skin makes for easier pickings.

Fazio and Sironi both found that most of the attacks involved a single gull, which suggests that certain troublesome individuals may be behind much of the whales’ woes. That’s actually encouraging – it means that killing specific birds would greatly ease the pressure on the whales. But new generations may already have learned to feast on whale flesh. In 2006, just 4 per cent of the attacking gulls were juveniles, but that proportion rose to 17 per cent in 2007. The youngsters often attacked in groups, with as many as eight birds pecking one poor whale.

Despite years of observations, no one knows whether the gull attacks are harming the whale populations beyond giving them some nasty sores. Certainly, the whale numbers are still going up, but it may take time before the true effects on these long-lived animals become clear.

The whales spend around a quarter of their daylight hours fleeing from the gulls’ attacks, which could conceivably rob them of valuable rest, and soak up their energy reserves. This might matter most for the calves, who are also robbed of important chances to socialise with their peers. Fazio is also worried that the gulls could carry skin infections, implanting bacteria from rubbish dumps and sewers into the skins of their unfortunate victims.

Local government authorities have recently decided to take action, prompted in large part by pressure from visitors and tour operators. They have kick-started a management programme to protect the whales, including everything from killing the attacking birds, to closing landfills and reducing the waste that sustains the large gull populations.

Source: Discover Magazine

SELVA Vida Sin Fronteras acknowledges Kevin Schafer’s important contribution towards protecting the highly endangered Amazon pink fresh water dolphin. Title photographs of our “The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice” were taken by Mr. Schafer. 

 

 Editorial: SELVA-Vida Sin Fronteras

Selvavidasinfronteras.wordpress.com

Editorial Committee

David Dunham

Arno Ambrosius

Gustavo López Ospina

Mariana Almeida

Pieter Jan Brouwer

Assistant: Emilia Romero

The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice is associated with the International Environmental Mission, a grass roots citizens movement created by Chilean Senator Juan Pablo Letelier.

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~ by FSVSF Admin on 29 August, 2012.

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