Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Ka­t­rina Pyne with pho­tog­ra­phy by Nick Hawkins

On New Brunswick’s Machias Seal Is­land, preda­tory gulls are push­ing en­dan­gered Arc­tic tern colonies to the brink. Should we kill one bird to save an­other?

On New Brunswick’s Machias Seal Is­land, preda­tory gulls are push­ing en­dan­gered Arc­tic tern colonies to the brink. Should we kill one bird to save an­other?

B BIRDERS WEIGHTED down with cam­eras and binoc­u­lars shuf­fle onto Day’s Catch from the wharf at Seal Cove on New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Is­land, ready to catch a glimpse of the At­lantic puffins, ra­zor­bills, mur­res, pe­trels and other seabirds that have been draw­ing or­nithophile­s to the re­gion since John James Audubon vis­ited the is­land in 1833. As the lob­ster boat-turned-tourist ves­sel de­parts, a gull hov­ers be­hind it, per­fectly still. While most peo­ple wouldn’t think of gulls as par­tic­u­larly men­ac­ing (un­less they’ve had a board­walk lunch ru­ined by the dive-bomb­ing bird), there is some­thing omi­nous about this one, which ap­pears to be hitch­ing a ride on the boat’s draft, trail­ing it as it pulls away from the is­land. Per­haps that’s be­cause here in the Gulf of Maine, gulls have gar­nered a far more preda­tory rep­u­ta­tion, at least among the mi­gra­tory seabirds that can be found on the is­lands that dot these wa­ters.

Day’s Catch heads south­west on its tu­mul­tuous 28-kilo­me­tre jour­ney into the gulf, plow­ing through me­tre-high swells to­ward its des­ti­na­tion, Machias Seal Is­land, an eight-hectare flat tree­less rock that’s pro­tected by the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment as a mi­gra­tory bird sanc­tu­ary. But as the boat nears the is­land, cell­phones be­gin to flash roam­ing alerts, a sig­nal that the pas­sen­gers have crossed into the United States. Or have they? It’s not en­tirely cer­tain, be­cause Machias Seal Is­land is dis­puted land, a 235-year-old ter­ri­to­rial kink be­tween the two na­tions that they haven’t man­aged to iron out, thanks to dif­fer­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion-end­ing Treaty of Paris of 1783. Yet there’s no sign of barely sim­mer­ing in­ter­na­tional con­flict on the is­land — no fence di­vid­ing it down the mid­dle, no pa­trol boats scud­ding off­shore, no flags du­elling in the breeze. In fact, apart from the birds, there’s not much to see other than the Cana­dian Coast Guard-ad­min­is­tered light­house and re­search sta­tion, although the hu­man pres­ence does ramp up dur­ing nest­ing sea­son in June and July, when two boat­loads of visi­tors per day — 15 aboard an Amer­i­can ves­sel and 15 aboard Day’s Catch — come to see the birds. Still, there is more to this place than it be­ing the an­swer to a quirky bit of ge­o­graphic trivia or a very fine place to bird- watch. What most peo­ple don’t know is that Machias Seal Is­land has be­come the fo­cus of an on­go­ing de­bate that has wildlife man­agers on both sides of the border at odds and could leave the fu­ture of one bird species hang­ing in the bal­ance.

ARC­TIC TERNS are ex­traor­di­nar­ily tough. They have to be, con­sid­er­ing they make the long­est mi­gra­tory jour­ney of any bird — a round trip of at least 35,000 kilo­me­tres from their breed­ing grounds in the Arc­tic to their win­ter­ing grounds in the Antarc­tic. But they aren’t ex­clu­sively Arc­tic birds. A pocket of them nest much far­ther south than the tun­dra or bo­real for­est, along the shore of the North At­lantic coast from New Eng­land north. One of these places is Machias Seal Is­land, which was once home to about 2,000 pairs of Arc­tic terns, mak­ing it the largest colony of its kind in North Amer­ica. To­day, how­ever, only about 475 pairs of terns re­main on the is­land, their num­bers di­min­ished in large part by the pres­ence of gulls, which hunt tern eggs and have wildlife man­agers at their wit’s end try­ing to pre­vent more losses. They’ve tried ev­ery­thing from de­stroy­ing gull nests and gull eggs to scar­ing the birds away us­ing sling­shots, paint­ball guns and a plethora of py­rotech­nics. “We tried about ev­ery non-lethal method of con­trol we could think of to pro­tect the tern colony, and ev­ery method failed,” says Lau­ren Scopel, a PHD can­di­date at the At­lantic Laboratory for Avian Re­search at the Univer­sity of New Brunswick in Fred­er­ic­ton.

‘We tried about ev­ery NON-LETHAL method of con­trol we could think of to PRO­TECT the tern colony, and ev­ery method FAILED.’

Scopel and Tony Di­a­mond, an emer­i­tus re­search pro­fes­sor in wildlife ecol­ogy who heads the laboratory, both be­lieve that the only way the Arc­tic terns on Machias Seal Is­land can be pro­tected is by killing some of the gulls out­right — a strat­egy known as lethal con­trol. “Many peo­ple aren’t com­fort­able with the idea of killing one an­i­mal to save an­other,” says Scopel, who ac­knowl­edges that lethal con­trol rep­re­sents a clas­sic eth­i­cal con­cern for wildlife man­agers. “But in this case, you choose to shoot gulls or you choose to let that colony dis­ap­pear.” In 2006, it seemed as if the colony on Machias Seal Is­land had dis­ap­peared. The is­land, which nor­mally re­sounded with the high-pitched shriek­ing of terns pro­tect­ing their young from preda­tors, went eerily silent as the birds aban­doned the nests they had been returning to each year. That they did so was the re­sult of sev­eral fac­tors, in­clud­ing a short­age of her­ring (their pri­mary fatty food source), bad weather dur­ing nest­ing sea­son and the grow­ing prob­lem of gull pre­da­tion. Lethal con­trol, which had been em­ployed for decades both for­mally by Cana­dian Wildlife Ser­vice war­dens and in­for­mally by some of the light­house keep­ers on the is­land, had been sus­pended in 2000 by the Cana­dian Wildlife Ser­vice. Di­a­mond says the sus­pen­sion oc­curred be­cause of a change in fed­eral long-gun reg­u­la­tions in the late 1990s, which made it im­pos­si­ble to get per­mits in a timely man­ner. He and Scopel cite the lack of lethal con­trol dur­ing this time as the main rea­son the terns aban­doned the colony six years later. Terns would re­turn and at­tempt to nest on the is­land in the years fol­low­ing, but the eggs make for easy food for the gulls with­out enough terns present to de­fend them. Arc­tic tern chicks were not suc­cess­fully fledged on the is­land again un­til 2014, af­ter lethal con­trol was rein­tro­duced — a move prompted by Scopel’s ex­pe­ri­ence on the is­land in 2013. Dur­ing one day of the field re­search sea­son that year, she spent hours run­ning across the is­land shoot­ing at gulls with a paint­ball gun (given to her by the Cana­dian Wildlife Ser­vice) as the birds picked off tern eggs. By the end of the day, the gulls re­mained com­pletely un­af­fected by the paint­balls and the ma­jor­ity of the Arc­tic tern colony had been dec­i­mated. “Terns make a call that sounds like a baby cry­ing when there’s a preda­tor in the colony,” says Scopel. “So for six or seven hours that day I heard noth­ing but scream­ing terns.” She im­me­di­ately wrote to Di­a­mond about the ex­pe­ri­ence and the need for lethal con­trol on the is­land. Di­a­mond for­warded her mes­sage to Cana­dian Wildlife Ser­vice man­agers, and soon af­ter, a per­mit for the lethal con­trol of gulls had been is­sued. “That was a sur­prise,” says Scopel. “For 13 years they had said no, and then this time was dif­fer­ent. They de­cided it was worth try­ing.” De­spite their suc­cess in hav­ing lethal con­trol re­in­stated, Di­a­mond and Scopel fear that they could still lose per­mis­sion to use it on the is­land be­cause of the prac­tice’s neg­a­tive pub­lic im­age. “It’s a sen­si­tive is­sue here,” says Di­a­mond. “Partly

be­cause of tight gun con­trols, but also be­cause if it was widely known, one let­ter from an ac­tivist could bring it to a halt.” Un­til they pub­lished a pa­per in de­fence of lethal con­trol in 2017, Di­a­mond and Scopel hadn’t widely ad­ver­tised their ac­tiv­i­ties on Machias Seal Is­land be­cause they were con­cerned about the pub­lic re­ac­tion. But they both say they don’t want to be oper­at­ing in the shad­ows any­more. In­stead, they want to have a real dis­cus­sion about the value of lethal con­trol and, more specif­i­cally, about how los­ing it could be the last nail in the cof­fin for the larger re­gional pop­u­la­tion of Arc­tic terns.

DI­A­MOND SUS­PECTS gull pre­da­tion may have been made worse in re­cent years be­cause of in­ten­sive lob­ster fish­ing in the dis­puted area, which is known as the grey zone. With the price of lob­ster nearly tripling over the last decade, fish­er­men from both sides of the border toss their traps into the wa­ters of this zone. The prac­tice has oc­ca­sion­ally led to ten­sions flar­ing be­tween fish­er­men, but it has also at­tracted gulls, which are drawn by the old bait that of­ten gets tossed over­board when the lob­ster traps are hauled up. Di­a­mond calls Machias Seal Is­land and the sur­round­ing wa­ters a “sub­si­dized fast food joint” that the gulls are in no rush to leave. Cur­rently, Di­a­mond’s team has a per­mit from the Cana­dian Wildlife Ser­vice to bring in a li­censed nui­sance an­i­mal con­trol of­fi­cer to shoot up to 10 gulls each year. Strict rules about when and how to iden­tify and elim­i­nate “prob­lem gulls” are fol­lowed. It’s a dif­fer­ent process than culling or tar­get­ing an en­tire pop­u­la­tion in­dis­crim­i­nately to re­duce num­bers. “The prob­lem isn’t even about the num­ber of gulls,” says Di­a­mond. “It’s be­havioural. This is about dis­cour­ag­ing bad be­hav­iour by in­di­vid­ual naughty gulls.” Two years af­ter the Machias Seal Is­land Arc­tic tern colony failed in 2006, Scopel be­gan work­ing with the Audubon Project Puf­fin seabird restora­tion pro­gram in Bre­men, Maine. She says that in the United States, wildlife man­agers take a more hands-on ap­proach to man­ag­ing gulls. “We are not per­mit­ted to have a firearm on the is­land at all times as they do at Amer­i­can colonies,” says Scopel. She be­lieves that if she and her col­leagues were able to shoot the “prob­lem gulls” them­selves as they are iden­ti­fied, there would be a much bet­ter chance at Arc­tic tern chicks fledg­ing, and likely fewer gulls shot in the long run. “My fond­est wish would be for us to have a gun full time,” she says. Brian Bene­dict, the man­ager of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Ser­vice’s Maine Coastal Is­lands Na­tional Wildlife Refuge, which en­com­passes an area around Machias Seal Is­land, says lethal con­trol of gulls is the most im­por­tant tool he has to re­store and main­tain seabird colonies at their his­toric nest­ing is­lands. He says in ad­di­tion to Machias Seal Is­land, lethal con­trol was

‘My FOND­EST WISH,’ says Lau­ren Scopel, ‘would be for us to have a GUN full time.’

used to re­store seabird colonies on Pe­tit Manan, Seal, Pond, Ship and Me­tinic is­lands, to name but a few. But Garry Don­ald­son, the man­ager of wildlife as­sess­ment and pro­tected ar­eas for the Cana­dian Wildlife Ser­vice’s At­lantic re­gion, says that rather than at­tempt­ing to main­tain a pop­u­la­tion of seabirds at the colony level, the Cana­dian Wildlife Ser­vice is cur­rently look­ing more broadly at the marine ecosys­tem as a whole. His con­cern is that en­cour­ag­ing birds such as the Arc­tic tern to stay on an is­land that no longer favours the pop­u­la­tion creates an eco­log­i­cal trap. “Are we try­ing to con­trol na­ture or sup­port na­ture?” he asks. By avoid­ing the more hands-on lethal con­trol, he says, wildlife man­agers can avoid the dilemma of valu­ing one species over an­other. Don­ald­son cites the case of The Brothers Is­lands Wildlife Man­age­ment Area off the south­west tip of Nova Sco­tia as an ex­am­ple of let­ting na­ture take its course. Last year, en­dan­gered roseate terns aban­doned the two is­lands, where for years the Cana­dian Wildlife Ser­vice has been man­ag­ing gulls by us­ing non­lethal con­trol. “When those birds aban­don the colony, it’s not like they all fly out to sea and die,” he says. “They move to dif­fer­ent is­lands.” But Scopel and Di­a­mond see it dif­fer­ently. “Most of the terns did move south to colonies that were more se­cure,” says Scopel of the terns’ aban­don­ment of Machias Seal Is­land in 2006. “But with­out Machias Seal Is­land, which has his­tor­i­cally been the largest Arc­tic tern colony, it made the en­tire re­gional pop­u­la­tion un­sta­ble.” THE FIRST THING the pas­sen­gers on Day’s Catch hear as the boat ap­proaches Machias Seal Is­land through the fog is the high-pitched shriek­ing of terns. The birders trans­fer to a skiff and cir­cle around the is­land, stop­ping to gawk at each new species they pass. First it’s the gan­nets, stand­ing tall on outer crevices. Then it’s the ra­zor­bills, gath­ered by the light­house. Then it’s the At­lantic puffins, which take clumsy flight as the boat gets closer. Turn­ing a cor­ner, the skiff passes a rocky cliff where four bird­watch­ing blinds stand. Fi­nally, some­one spots the Arc­tic terns, which are so small and fast it’s a chal­lenge to fol­low them. These birds weigh lit­tle more than a bar of soap, but they’re ro­bust enough to travel tens of thou­sands of kilo­me­tres ev­ery year. Could they be tough enough to sur­vive on Machias Seal Is­land — with peo­ple’s help — and fledge their young af­ter so many years of fail­ure? Or will they move on, aban­don­ing in­stinct and re­lin­quish­ing this slab of rock to the gulls? Scopel has one pos­si­ble an­swer. “We saw the same bird that would nest in the same spot in the same hole in the ground on the lawn ev­ery year be­cause they re­ally wanted to nest there even though it was a ter­ri­ble idea,” she says. “They just don’t want to be any­where else.”

‘By AVOID­ING the more hands-on LETHAL CON­TROL,’ says Garry Don­ald­son, ‘wildlife man­agers can avoid the DILEMMA of valu­ing one species over an­other.’

An Arc­tic tern on Machias Seal Is­land, which was once home to about 2,000 pairs of the birds; to­day, there are only about 475 pairs.

Clock­wise from op­po­site: An Arc­tic tern chick emerges from a nest­ing box on the is­land; wildlife ecol­o­gist Tony Di­a­mond stands by one the is­land’s view­ing blinds; a re­searcher mea­sures an Arc­tic tern egg.

A fish­er­man hauls in a lob­ster trap in the Bay of Fundy. Gull pre­da­tion of Arc­tic terns may have been ex­ac­er­bated by in­ten­sive lob­ster fish­ing in the re­gion in re­cent years.

Dead gulls on Machias Seal Is­land. The Cana­dian Wildlife Ser­vice cur­rently per­mits re­searchers on the is­land to have up to 10 “nui­sance” gulls shot each year.

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