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August 27, 2001

Pelicans in peril

Already endangered, brown pelicans encounter more problems

Up and down the coast they are arriving, like casualties in an undocumented war. Some will be rescued and receive critical medical care in time, while others will slowly die, unseen and uncounted.

Brown Pelicans, already federally listed as endangered, are fighting new wars in the 21st century, and they may be losing the battle in spite of federal laws with fines as high as $200,000 for harming them.

In the past month, more pelicans have arrived at International Bird Rescue Research Center’s (IBRRC) Northern California hospital than it received in six months last year. And the birds are arriving ahead of schedule. “Typically we start to receive large numbers of pelicans in August because the youngsters are out on their own and running into trouble. But this year, we are seeing more adult birds with injuries caused by fishing lines and fish hooks,” said Rehabilitation Manager Coleen Doucette.

Some of the pelicans that IBRRC gets in are beyond hope; hooks have punctured eyes, torn gaping holes in pouches, and caused infections that are untreatable. Fishing lines wrapped around wings and legs restrict blood flow and movement, causing slow starvation and death unless the animal is quickly rescued, usually by people who see the birds in trouble.

Doucette said it’s particularly bad for pelicans, because they are endangered, but anything that swims, dives, or eats from lakes and oceans can be snared by discarded hooks and lines, including porpoises, turtles and even whales. Wildlife rehabilitation centers in Florida are finding that 85 percent of the pelicans there have had an encounter with fishing lines and/or hooks at some point in their lives.

The world turned very hostile for brown pelicans in the 20th century. They’ve endured one battle after another, sometimes barely hanging on. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were killed for their feathers, to adorn women’s hats. During the food shortages following WWI, pelicans were slaughtered by the thousands because fishermen believed they were decimating commercial fishery resources, and their nests were frequently raided for eggs. With the advent and widespread use of pesticides such as DDT and DDE beginning in the 1940s, populations again plummeted as pesticides entered the oceans, and the food chain, causing eggshells to be so thin they broke during incubation.

The population of brown pelican colonies off Southern California shrank by more than 90 percent during the late 1960s. For decades a chemical plant had been discharging thousands of pounds of the pesticide into Los Angeles County sewers, which then entered coastal waters where it was absorbed by anchovies and other fish eaten by pelicans.

Then in 1996, another blow came to the brown pelicans when an outbreak of avian botulism caused 735 deaths at the Salton Sea. Outbreaks occur every year and some are worse than others. Biologists studying the birds in the Channel Islands also fear an oil spill, which could devastate the only breeding colonies of Brown Pelicans in the western US.

“Pelicans are an indicator species,” says Jay Holcomb, IBRRC’s director, “They tell us when there’s trouble in the environment. We’re taking note of this trend because young pelicans typically have a high mortality rate, but that doesn’t affect the population as much as the death of a mature pelican who would have had many years of breeding ahead of it. We need to educate people, and especially people who fish, that a careless action, like cutting a line, especially one with a hook and bait, will surely mean death to the animal that eats it or gets tangled in it. And if you are fishing off a boat, always scan the area for pelicans before you throw out your line, or chum. Pelicans are opportunistic and are always looking for a free lunch. Don’t do anything to attract them, because they might take your fish and line, causing a dangerous situation for both you and the bird.”

IBRRC is taking the situation seriously and is beginning to collect data from other wildlife centers to try and determine how many pelicans are coming in due to fishing line injuries. With a population of only about 5,000 breeding pairs, Holcomb feels every pelican successfully treated and released, can make a difference. In addition to their research, IBRRC is planning to work with other non-profits, wildlife rehabilitation centers and government agencies to begin an educational campaign, similar to ones being used in Florida where signs and special containers for fishing line are provided in popular fishing spots.

“We’re taking the first step,” Holcomb said, “educating the public about what is going on right in their backyard, right now and we’re hoping that others will follow."

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Media contact:

Karen Benzel

Office: (831) 622-7588

E-mail: karen@ibrrc.org


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