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SEWARD - The Alaska SeaLife Center rehabilitation department was abuzz with the sound of hair dryers - and the smell of damp feathers.
Huddled beneath the warm air stream were sea gulls in various stages of disrepair following their rescue by SeaLife Center and harbor staff from the depths of waste barges beneath the two fish cleaning stations in the harbor.
Between 30 and 40 gulls have died this month after clambering into the 4-foot-high barges looking for discarded fish scraps. Some of those fatalities were caused by cascading fish carcasses tossed by cleaners above, according to Steve Lease, owner of J-Dock Fish Co. next to one of the stations.
The newly designed fish-cleaning stations installed at the head of J- and B-docks last year are equipped with waste barges too narrow and too deep for birds to fly out of once they land and are wetted down by spray and fish oil from those cleaning fish on metal tables above, Lease said.
Previous waste barges in the harbor were wider and not as deep, dimensions the gulls had no problem escaping.
The SeaLife Center's rehabilitation staff spent two days drying off and releasing about 15 sea gulls a day, said rehabilitation technician Tim Lebling.
"It's not an issue yet this year," Lebling said. "They (harbor staff) acted quickly in responding to the fact the birds were getting in there."
Seward Harbormaster Jim Beckham quickly installed additional 3/4-inch mesh netting around the waste barges when the problem escalated, limiting the birds' access. But more deterrents are needed.
"We've installed kites, wire, hanging balls, you name it," Beckham said of items that are supposedly marketed to scare off sea gulls. "They get habituated."
"They've hung bobbing pumpkin heads and things seem to work for a while," Lease said.
But not for long.
Beckham said the city consulted bird experts before installing the new stations. The experts suggested that the waste barges be built narrow and deep - dimensions, they said, sea gulls avoided.
"Now we know they fly into tunnels and jump into deep holes," Beckham said of the misguided information.