Update on Gloucester Gulls

5 01 2010

The oiled gulls in Gloucester may have been foraging in a fish oil slick. (photo by R. Heil)

Since last week’s post, the apparent oiling of 40 or more gulls in Gloucester, Massachusetts has generated a flurry of emails and phone calls to local, state and federal wildlife officials. At present, the consensus seems to be that the oil involved is not petroleum based (as evident in photos, the substance appears to be clear and yellow, very unlike a crude oil spill). Additionally, no oil has turned up on local beaches.
One of the affected gulls was captured and transported to Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine’s Wildlife Clinic for treatment. Veterinarians there suspected that the substance may have been fish oil, based on its smell. One theory being tossed around is that Herring boats in the Gloucester fleet may have discharged oily fish wastes into the water (this is a legal practice), and the opportunistic gulls hanging around the boats may have been coated in the discharge. Other observers point out that the fishing fleet has mostly been moored, inactive, in the harbor and wouldn’t have been actively discharging any wastes during the timeframe in question. Fish oil waste could also have washed into the harbor with the considerable snow run-off in the days leading up the sightings, and gulls are not ones to miss out on a fishy/oily meal whatever the source, so it may prove impossible to determine its origin.
In any case, aside from the one bird brought to Tufts, SEANET is not aware of any additional captures, and observers in Gloucester have not reported seeing any oiled birds for some days. The birds may be able to preen off the non-toxic fish oil and regain their water-proofing, in stark contrast to petroleum oil, which adheres thickly to feathers and is often fatal when ingested.
SEANET will keep you apprised of any additional developments in this case, and thank everyone who has contributed reports. Keep your eyes open as usual, Seanetters.

In unrelated news, a response is due to Joe Poland, who pointed out that the most recent dead bird quiz was basically a repeat of one issued last month. True indeed, Joe, but I will stop at nothing for a truly wretched pun, and that was the price you all had to pay!