ATLANTIC CITY - Squawking gulls are as ubiquitous on this seashore resort's famous Boardwalk as gamblers and rolling chairs.
But the dive-bombing birds have become the target of a city-improvement committee that wants to stop them from stealing food from unsuspecting tourists who stroll or dine along the Boardwalk.
By spring, the Atlantic City Special Improvement District plans to install a web of fishing filament 15 feet above the Boardwalk in front of Bally's Park Place & Wild Wild West Casino that is supposed to stop the gulls' stealth maneuvers.
Calling it a "worthy investment," Harrah's Entertainment, which owns the casino, will pay about $3,000 to install the line along 350 feet of Boardwalk in the test area near Ohio Avenue, said Dan Nita, a spokesman for Harrah's Entertainment.
The strategy has met with criticism from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which says it will likely mount a campaign to block the plan's implementation.
"There are humane ways to exclude these birds from the Boardwalk," Daphna Nachminovitch, director of PETA's cruelty investigation department, said last week. But the Atlantic City plan is "amateurish and inhumane," she said.
"The birds will likely have their wings broken by these lines, get tangled in them, and the city will have on its hands a much bigger problem than birds eating tourists' food," Nachminovitch said.
Don Guardian, executive director of the improvement district, said he disagreed with PETA's assessment.
"We need to do something about this issue, and we think this will be the best and most humane way for us to handle it," Guardian said. "The seagulls have become very aggressive up and down the Shore when it comes to food."
Who can blame them? The smorgasbord of finger foods the birds can snatch out of the hands of humans on the Boardwalk is almost endless: pizza, hot pretzels, roasted peanuts, caramel-covered popcorn, chunks of fudge.
As more restaurants have added outside dining areas in recent years, the options have gone decidedly upscale for the feathered intruders.
Last summer, patrons of Evo Restaurant outside the Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino routinely complained that gulls were grabbing raw seafood.
"They were stealing the oysters on the half shell right off the dinner plates," said Stephanie Brooks, a hostess at the restaurant. "We had to start warning people when we would seat them out there that the seagulls could be very aggressive."
Many Jersey Shore towns have ordinances against feeding the scavenger birds often inaccurately identified as "seagulls."
Gulls are actually part of a family of birds that includes dozens of varieties. About 10 species are found along the Jersey coast, including the laughing gull, the most common.
"Tourists come in and they think it's cute to the feed the birds," said Tony Klein, who operates dollar stores in Atlantic City and on Wildwood's boardwalk, where the gulls are also a problem.
"Next thing you know, we have literally hundreds of seagulls . . . scaring people when the food runs out and they start getting aggressive," Klein said.
So next month, officials plan to devise a strategy for installing strands of the thin filament about six inches apart across the 60-foot-wide Boardwalk test area. The way the line will be draped is supposed to deter birds from wanting to fly through it, Guardian said.
The line will be attached to lamposts, cables and facades, he said.
"It won't actually clip their wings, but when the gulls see it, they think it will hurt them, so they fly away from it," Guardian said.
If it is successful in keeping gulls away and permits can be obtained from the city, the lines could ultimately be strung along the entire four-mile Boardwalk. It is unclear how much the plan will cost, Guardian said.
Guardian said use of fishing line to deter gulls has been tested successfully on a much smaller scale by private entities in Atlantic City.
Last summer, the Atlantic City Hilton rigged a small section of its outdoor Beach Bar seating area and found it was effective in keeping gulls away, according to a spokesman.