Landfill-feeding seagulls pose a threat to nearby water bodies, study finds

Landfill-feeding seagulls pose a threat to nearby water bodies, study finds

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Gulls flocking to a landfill. Photo credit: Scott Winton.

The 1.4 million seagulls that feed at landfills across North America pose a threat to nearby water bodies, a new study from Duke University finds.

Lead author Scott Winton estimates that these gulls transport and deposit an extra 240 tons of nitrogen and 39 tons of phosphorus into nearby lakes or reservoirs in North America each year through their feces.

The study, which Duke University said is the first to look at the transport of nutrients into surface waters from seagulls at landfills, was published on June 15, 2017, in the journal Water Research.

According to a press release, the added nutrients contained in the birds’ droppings can contribute to extensive algal blooms that rob surface waters of much of the oxygen needed to sustain healthy aquatic animal life – a process known as eutrophication.

Oxygen depletion and algal toxins that result from the blooms can have far-reaching ecological and economic impacts, including fish kills, increased costs for local governments, and reduced recreational or fishing values in affected waters.

“It costs local U.S. governments an estimated $100 million a year in nutrient offset credits to address or prevent the problem and maintain nutrient levels at or below the total maximum daily load threshold for water quality,” said Mark River who conducted the research with Winton.

The study examined landfills near two major drinking water reservoirs – Jordan Lake and Falls Lake – that serve the Raleigh-Durham region of North Carolina. Nitrogen and phosphorus loading data from these two lakes were then scaled up to estimate total loading at water bodies near landfills across North America, using a well-established model for measuring the nutrient transport of carnivorous birds.

The findings are applicable to lakes and reservoirs in other parts of the world, as well.

“The idea that gull feces can be a major water quality problem may sound comical, until you look at data from an individual lake,” Winton said. “In Jordan Lake, for instance, we found that a local flock of 49,000 ring-billed gulls deposit landfill feces containing nearly 1.2 tons of phosphorus into the lake annually.”

That amount, he said, is equivalent to roughly half of the total phosphorus load reduction target established for the New Hope Creek watershed of Jordan Lake. Offsetting this added phosphorus costs local governments about $2.2 million annually, largely through long-term programs aimed at reducing other sources of inflowing nutrients such as urban stormwater or agricultural runoff.

Reducing the size of the gull flocks may also be an option worth pursuing, Winton said. Reducing the size of open landfills, and covering trash more quickly after it is dumped, are among the ways managers can reduce the gulls’ easy access to a food supply and encourage a flock to disperse to other feeding habitats.

“There’s a decent history of local governments implementing gull management at landfills because of fears about airplane strikes or because of the nuisance factor to nearby communities,” Winton said. “It might be cost-effective to pursue some of these non-lethal mitigation methods to reduce nutrient loading, as well.”

To read the original press release, visit: www.nicholas.duke.edu

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