BUENOS AIRES: What began as unusual bird behaviour has turned into something out of a horror film for threatened whales in Argentina.
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.
Seagull attacks on southern right whales have become so common that authorities are planning to shoot the gulls to reduce their population.
Environmentalists say the plan is misguided and that humans are 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 into something sad and gruesome.
''It's not just that the gulls are attacking the whales, but that they're feeding from them,'' said Marcelo Bertellotti, from the National Patagonia Centre, 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.''
Also, instead of breaching the water and dramatically displaying their tails, they are rising barely enough to breathe before descending to safety, Bertellotti said.
Bertellotti's answer: Shoot the gulls that display this behaviour and recover each downed bird before they are eaten along with the ammunition.
His 100-day Whale-Gull Action Plan was approved by the government of Chubut province.
Environmentalists, however, 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.