Right whales (Eubalaena australis) off the coast of Argentina face the gruesome threat of being slowly eaten alive by birds every time they take a breath. The menace has become so great that local officials are planning to declare open season on the gulls and allow hunters to knock problem birds out of the sky, reported the AP.
The macabre torment of the whales sounds like a punishment from vengeful gods in a Greek myth or the plot of a Edgar Allan Poe story, but the real reason gulls have turned on the whales may be a bunch of garbage. Open air trash heaps near coastal cities have fueled a massive population boom in gulls. Fishermen add to the problem when they throw fish parts back into the ocean.
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About eight years ago, the burgeoning gull population around the city of Puerto Madryn learned that they can get fresh meat from the whales. As more gulls learned the trick, the problems for whales increased. The gulls wait until a whale surfaces for air, then tear holes in the whales’ flesh and rip off pieces of skin and blubber. Each time the whales come back up, the gulls go in for more.
“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,” Marcelo Bertellotti, of the National Patagonia Center, a government-sponsored conservation agency, told the AP.
The whales have had to change their behavior, according to Bertellolli. The whales no longer leap from the water or display their massive tails. Instead they break the surface just long enough to gulp in some air and then retreat to the safety of the depths.
Bertellotti advocates gunning down the gulls to protect the whales. By culling out the birds that have learned the whale bushwhack technique, he hopes to erase the habit from the population.
Don’t cry for gulls, Argentina, say some in response to this plan. The gulls are only a symptom of the open air garbage pit problem, they say. Reducing, reusing and recycling along with covering up the trash heaps would stop the gull population from booming. Less gulls would mean less threat to the whales.
“At year’s end, we’re going to inaugurate garbage-separation plants,” regional environmental minister, Eduardo Maza said in the AP. “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.”
Southern right whale off theValdez Peninsula, Patagonia, Argentina (Michaël Catanzariti, Wikimedia Commons)