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Gull droppings tied to E. coli Task force recommends getting rid of the birds that foul South Shore


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


Gull droppings' fecal bacteria is nearly 100% E. coli. Ounce for ounce, gull feces carry much more E. coli than that of other waterfowl.


That's one of the recommendations of a local group studying persistent Lake Michigan beach pollution in the Milwaukee area. Preliminary results of several studies have identified gulls as a likely culprit of high fecal coliform levels that have led to closing South Shore Beach for about half of last year's swimming season.


The severe pollution at South Shore Beach probably is a localized problem linked to the heavy concentration of gulls there coupled with relatively stagnant water, according to a report by the Southeast Wisconsin Beach Task Force. The group was formed more than a year ago to investigate causes and ways to fix beach pollution.


While more research needs to be done, enough is known now to implicate gull droppings as a source of the high bacteria at South Shore, Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee), a member of the task force, said Thursday. The group hasn't yet worked out a plan for gull removal, something that probably would prove difficult, he said.


"They are a federally protected species," Richards said. "Also, people love sea gulls. I love sea gulls. Who doesn't love the sound of sea gulls around their house?"


Gull droppings nearly all E. coli But gull droppings carry a powerful dose of bacteria, according to Sandra McLellan, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researcher studying water pollution at Lake Michigan for the task force.


And not just any old fecal coliform. Gull droppings' fecal bacteria is nearly 100% E. coli, a type associated with gastrointestinal illnesses if ingested by people, McLellan said.


Ounce for ounce, gull feces carry much more E. coli than that of other waterfowl, including the Canada geese that also frequent the South Shore Beach area, McLellan said.


She cited a 1999 New York study that sampled gull and goose feces around a reservoir. That study found gull feces contained on average 368 million fecal coliform bacteria per gram, which translates to about 184 million per gull dropping.


Federal guidelines suggest closing beaches if water samples contain 235 fecal coliforms per liter of water.


Bacteria concentration in gull droppings is about 1,000 times greater than for goose droppings, McLellan said.


Gulls "obviously have pretty potent waste, and that's something we have to acknowledge," Richards said.


Although the task force report called for moving or eliminating waterfowl from the South Shore Beach area, it didn't suggest how it might be done.


Gulls are considered highly adaptable and smart birds, posing challenges to removal plans, according to experts.


Gary Waszak, director of aquatics for Milwaukee County, said he hadn't seen the task force recommendation but was skeptical about trying to rid South Shore Beach of its gulls.


"That would be like eliminating lake effect snow in the area," he said. "You can try," but you'd be fighting a powerful force of nature.


"I don't know what could be done other than some kind of scare tactics," such as loud noises, Waszak said.


Breakwater changes sought The report also suggests reducing direct storm water flows to the lake, to prevent gull, duck and dog feces from washing into the lake at South Shore Beach from a paved boat ramp. And it suggests altering the breakwater so it doesn't trap water in the beach area so effectively. Better circulation with offshore water would dilute the near-shore bacteria pollution, the report said.


Richards said he hoped, despite the tight state and local budgets, that some money could be found for the projects.


McLellan said her research has not yet ruled out other sources of bacteria as contributing to the South Shore pollution problem. Those could include bacteria from streets and farms that wash downstream, as well as from the raw sewage dumping that occurs in heavy rainstorms, she said.


"Most certainly there isn't one single answer" to the cause of the beach pollution, she said.


But the high bacteria levels at South Shore exceed readings from the rivers that flow into Lake Michigan, suggesting gull waste plays a dominant role there, she said.


Research probably will continue for another year before a final report is issued, McLellan said.


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