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It's a Gull-Eat-Whale World Out There, Thanks to People

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A month ago ecologist Leah Gerber asked our readers to consider a biodiversity conundrum—in preserving a natural habitat, how should humans react when one struggling species starts edging a more critically threatened one toward extinction. In this case it was Galapagos sharks snacking on monk seals in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument; the National Marine Fisheries Service has called for culling the sharks.

The dilemma about conservation triage arises because we have to hold two logically inconsistent ideas to view it—a preserve assumes that humans aren’t involved, yet to preserve something today essentially requires human management. (I might point out that our friends behind the Ocean Health Index would probably point out that like it not, humans ARE part of the natural scene, but let’s ignore that point at the moment.)

Letting nature be nature in the presence of humans inevitably leads to such dissonance. In Argentina, for example, over the last decades sea gulls have learned they can land on the backs of southern right whales for instant sashimi; a quarter of instances when a whale surfaces, according to The Associated Press, it can expect to lose a beak-size strip of flesh.

This is of course a problem for the whales trying to raise a family in their favored birthing spot. Luckily for the whales, it also puts a damper on the tourist trade—“by turning whale-watching from a magical experience into something sad and gruesome,” as the AP puts it.

The quick solution?

For the whales, it’s been to take a hurried gulp of air and then dive immediately.

For the people, it’s to shoot the birds. A “100-day Whale-Gull Action Plan” calls for plinking at gulls seen feasting on whales, then retrieving the gull carcass so the lead in it doesn’t cause environmental problems down the food chain.

Gulls are not endangered—as a resident of a coastal town I will provide sworn testimony to that effect—and there’s certainly precedent for vanquishing varmints so threatened species can live.

But a better solution than the gull cull will require people, not birds or whales, to change their habits. Seems all the crud people leave behind, whether as garbage or leftovers from fish processing, drew inordinate numbers of those pesky gulls. Once settled in, the birds broadened their dining experience with blubber burgers.

Local officials say dealing with the open-air garbage dumps is in the cards, but in the meantime, shooting the birds will provide immediate relief. For the whale-watchers.