September 12, 2001

 

 

Kymber Bonham (left) and a helper captured this hooked pelican at the kayak dock. Photograph by George Sakkestad

 

Pelican Grief

 

Competition between endangered brown pelicans and anglers reaches crisis level at the Santa Cruz Wharf

By Tai Moses

FRIDAY, AUG. 10, was the kind of day that Santa Cruz Wharf supervisor Dan Beucher calls "peak life in the bay." Fishermen crowded the railings of the wharf, their lines reaching to the water. Hundreds of brown pelicans, many juveniles on their first migration north from the Channel Islands, eagerly dove for the sardines and other baitfish that pods of sea lions had herded near the shore. Murres and cormorants joined the feeding frenzy. The shrieks of gulls mingled with the screams of tourist riding the Big Dipper at the Boardwalk.

Molly Richardson of Santa Cruz Native Animal Rescue has another expression for Aug. 10--she calls it "Black Friday." That day, NAR rescued 13 brown pelican injured by fishing hooks or entangled in lines at thewharf--and those were just the birds so damaged they were unable to fly or swim away from rescuers.

In the weeks before and after Black Friday, an informal coalition of good Samaritans--NAR volunteers,

employees of Venture Quest Kayaks and

lifeguards--rescued pelican after pelican from the wharf,

the Main Beach and Cowell's Beach. At last count, the

number had climbed to nearly 200 birds.

 

The cause of this avian Waterloo is the presence at the

wharf of a phenomenon fishermen call a "bait ball," a

massive school of sardines and anchovies that is like a

dinner bell going off in the ocean for man and beast

alike.

 

"They're the popcorn of the sea," Beucher says of the

sardines. "Everyone chases them: sea lions and salmon

behind them, and the fishermen and the birds above

them."

 

"If there's a school," says Paula Palattella, a Venture

Quest employee who has rescued more than 40 pelicans

at the wharf, "the pelicans are diving. And the fishermen

go where the pelicans are, because they know where the

fish are. So what happens is they go for the same fish.

More often than not the pelicans are flying in to dive for

their own fish, and they get caught, because there's 50

fishing lines in a 10-foot radius."

 

On Wednesday, Aug. 22, Santa Cruz Parks & Recreation

Director Jim Lang authorized wharf personnel and

lifeguards to post signs declaring 200 yards of the wharf

off-limits to anglers. Native Animal Rescue had already

put up its own warning signs, which the majority of

anglers were ignoring.

 

Within days, however, most of the city's paper signs had

blown off or been torn down, and the few that remained

were having little impact. Pelican rescues were still

taking place every day in the double digits. I saw one

angler fishing right in front of one of the city's signs.

 

"I don't think it's current," he said, and gestured vaguely

down the wharf: "I think it means no fishing over there."

 

Rescuers expressed frustration with what they

considered the city's sluggish response to the problem.

"There's not really anything in place to deal with

anything like this," said Tricia Nelson, a wildlife

specialist with NAR. "How bad does it have to get before

any action is taken?"


Photograph by George Sakkestad

Reel Life: Nearly 200 brown pelicans injured by fishing hooks and
lines have been rescued at the wharf this summer.

 

Hook, Line and Sinker

CONSCIENTIOUS ANGLERS do pull up their lines

when pelicans are feeding--or at least exercise caution.

"Some of the techniques I've been noticing," said Kiet, a

fishermen from San Jose angling on the wharf, "is,

rather than casting overhead, [casting] underneath. I

avoid pelicans that way. So far, it's been working for

me."

 

"If you're a real fishermen, you're not going to cast into

the birds," says Bob Strickland, president of United

Anglers of California, a San Jose-based organization

with 6,000 members. "Educated fishermen know

better," he says.

 

But Beucher, who has worked on this wharf for 27 years,

says less experienced fishermen are often more

aggressive.

 

Bait fishermen on the wharf are a diverse group. "You

have a language barrier out there," says Frank Ealy,

owner of Santa Cruz Boat Rental and Capitola Boat and

Bait.

 

One fisherman ratted out a fellow angler. "That guy

caught three pelicans this morning."

 

Wharf construction worker Jon Bombaci says, "I think

what's happened is we had large groups of people who

come from places where wildlife isn't valued." He holds

up a pencil popper, a shiny, tapered, 7-inch-long lure

sporting two formidable triple-hooks. Surf-casters use it

to catch stripers; that morning, a rescuer removed one

just like it from a pelican's foot.

 

Tricia Nelson sees injuries in pelicans ranging from

small holes to large infected necrotic wounds, and legs

with circulation cut off by fishing monofilament for so

long that the bird's feet are swollen and purple.

 

"The birds are often emaciated and hypothermic by the

time we get them because they haven't been able to fish

because of their injuries," she explains.

 

One hapless pelican, who became known to rescuers as

#R78, had at least 10 fishhooks embedded in him. Many

of the hooks came from anchovy jigs, lines that have six

tiny barbed hooks designed to snag any part of a fish

they touch.

 

One hook had worked its way deep into the crook of the

pelican's wing, and the bird trembled as Sonia Rao of

Venture Quest clipped the barbs and gently extracted

the hooks from his body with a needle-nose pliers. A

crowd of curious tourists gathered around. Cameras

clicked. "Are you banding him?" an onlooker asked

innocently.

 

After a brief stay at NAR's home rehab center, run by

Molly Richardson and her two granddaughters, #R78

got a one-way ticket to the International Bird Rescue

Research Center (IBRRC) in Suisun. There Santa Cruz's

injured pelicans are rehabilitated and then released or, if

their injuries are too severe, euthanized.

THE BROWN PELICAN,
ponderous on land, is a graceful acrobat in the air, perfectly designed for plunge-diving from heights as high as 60 feet and scooping up fish with its capacious dip-net bill. Air sacs beneath the bird's skin cushion the impact of the landings.

Just off the wharf, I watch a pelican hurtle in a steep,

twisting dive toward the water. It hits with a neat splash

and surfaces, its bill pointing upward to let the seawater

drain out before it swallows its catch whole.

 

As the bird takes to the air again with slow, powerful

wing beats, I see a 10-foot length of monofilament line

trailing behind it, wrapped around the bird's foot.

 

Cutting the line after a pelican is hooked is one of the

most disastrous mistakes a fisherman can make.

Monofilament line entanglement is a slow, excruciating

death for birds and other marine life. A casual glance

around the wharf suggests that fishermen aren't doing a

very good job of keeping tabs on this nasty stuff, which

can last for 600 years in the saltwater environment.

Fishing line can be seen dangling on wharf pilings,

snarled on rocks and sticking out of trash cans, where

gulls dig it out and become ensnared.

 

"People don't seem to have much knowledge that when

fishing line gets wrapped around a pelican, it's a deadly

situation," says Coleen Doucette, rehabilitation manager

at the rescue center in Suisun. "They think when they

cut the line and let the pelican go, all's well with the

world, but that's not true.

 

"We need to educate the fishermen," she continues. "It's

critical that when they're fishing they're not fishing in

the same spot that the birds are."

 

Pelicans in Peril

 

O N FRIDAY, AUG. 31, the city finally acknowledged it

needed help. The resources of Native Animal Rescue

were overwhelmed. IBRRC was filled to capacity with

Santa Cruz's maimed and mutilated pelicans.

 

The California Department of Fish & Game persuaded

the city to extend its temporary closure up to Stagnaro's

Bay Cruises, about three-quarters of the wharf. New

bright-green laminated signs replaced the makeshift

white pieces of paper.

 

"Due to unacceptable numbers of injuries to pelicans,

this area is designated as Temporary No Fishing Zone,

Municipal Code 9.66.050." (Fortunately. someone

noticed that the code section quoted regulates ocean

water sports and soon pasted it over with the marginally

more appropriate Muni Code 13.04.011, which limits

hours of operation.)

 

Next to the lifeguard's orange signs and NAR's yellow

ones, the wharf looked pretty colorful. Even splashier

were the bright fin flashes from the silver badges of

uniformed Fish & Game wardens and city park rangers

patrolling the wharf.

 

More than a few fishermen met the wharf closures with

complaints.

 

"The wharf has been here for 90-something years, and

it's been a fishing wharf and it's going to stay a fishing

wharf," said Larry, a longtime wharf denizen who

wouldn't give his last name. "The pelicans, they're the

ones that are doing it, they're flying into the line. My

opinion is I don't care about the pelicans. This has been

a fisherman's wharf all along. Now a bunch of stupid

birds come along, and they want to take over."

 

Over Labor Day weekend, Venture Questers and NAR

rescued 42 pelicans: of those, 10 died. "Some of them,

the injuries were so bad, the line was around the leg all

the way to the bone," said Molly Richardson.

 

That weekend, NAR volunteer and avowed acrophobic

Kymber Bonham pulled off a rescue that should have

earned her a spot on Fox's Amazing Animal Rescues.

Traversing the catwalk behind wharf restaurants, she

climbed the narrow wooden ladder to the rooftops

where about 100 pelicans were roosting, among them

numerous birds with old wounds and one dead bird. The

pelican she was pursuing had a gaping bloody hole in its

chest, but it flapped weakly away at her approach. She

succeeded in capturing one pelican, and, holding the

bird with its bill tucked under one arm, she descended

the ladder one hand at a time, resting her weight on a

finger while she stepped from rung to rung

Protection Racket

 

THE CALIFORNIA brown pelican has been listed as a

federally endangered species since 1970 (under a law

that preceded the Endan gered Species Act of 1973) and

has been protected under the California Endangered

Species Act since 1971. Pelicans are also protected

under the Migratory Bird Act.

 

That makes it sound as if a battalion of agencies is

looking out for the brown pelican, and indeed, there are

substantial fines for anyone caught intentionally

harming one of the seabirds. The Endangered Species

Act clearly states that any "take" of a listed species is

illegal; technically, "take" includes any activity that

interferes with an endangered bird's ability to feed.

 

According to Michael J. Bean, an attorney with

Environmental Defense who specializes in

endangered-species law, "The accidental hooking of a

brown pelican is a violation of the Endangered Species

Act; it clearly represents the taking of a pelican."

 

Bean says, however, that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife

Service prosecutes very few violations of the ESA,

particularly in cases where there is no clear intent to

harm the bird.

 

"I suspect that Fish & Wildlife is inclined to look the

other way on problems like this and probably will

continue to do so unless it feels some substantial

pressure," Bean said.

 

"We are concerned about that accidental source of

mortality of the brown pelicans," Lois Grunwald,

spokesperson for U.S. Fish & Wildlife told me. "But at

this point, we have no programs to specifically address

the hooking of the birds. We've only got so much

manpower, and we have to focus our manpower on

serious, egregious cases."

 

Frank Spear, chief of marine patrol for the California

Department of Fish & Game, says his agency intends to

educate fishermen and encourage voluntary compliance

with the temporary fishing ban, not to issue citations.

 

"Our goal is to reduce the injuries to the brown pelican,"

Spear said. "We want to keep the pier open for fishing,

but we want to give the pelicans a little more room.

We're trying to work it out for pelicans and people."

 

What remains unclear to many observers is why it took

so long for the city to contact Fish & Game in the first

place. Native Animal Rescue was stretched to capacity

rescuing and caring for birds, and the city seemed to be

crossing its fingers that its partial closure would do the

job.

 

"We're looking at this on a day-to-day basis," said Parks

& Rec Director Lang. "We had really hoped the baitfish

were moving out."

 

"It took a while for the city to say this is not an

acceptable level [of pelican injuries], when in fact there

is no acceptable level," said Richard Mark, president of

NAR.

 

"One of the things we were kind of surprised at is the

loss [of pelican life] before anyone called us," Frank

Spear said. "We were down there the day after we heard

of it."

 

Pass the Bait

 

AS THE FIRST WEEK of September draws to a close,

there are signs that the worst is over. New pelican

hookings have dramatically declined, but rescuers are

still finding birds debilitated by old wounds.

 

At an interagency meeting called by NAR on Sept. 5, the

predicament was thrashed out from all angles. To drive

home its point, NAR had brought along a carload of

pelican carcasses, all wharf fatalities, which members

piled in a heap outside the meeting room at the Yacht

Harbor. The faint stench of the dead birds wafted in

through the open door as people spoke.

 

"I just hate to see this kind of carnage, but I hate to see

the fisherman lose too," said Bob Strickland.

 

"The majority of fishermen are certainly not out to snag

the birds, but they have the right to fish from a public

facility," said another fisherman.

 

Gathered in the room were members of conservation

and animal-rescue groups, birders, biologists,

fishermen, wharf business owners and Fish & Game

wardens. Wharf officials, who work under Parks & Rec,

were also present. Conspicuously absent from the

meeting was the City of Santa Cruz, the decision-making

body for wharf policy.

 

A meeting that began with clashes between defensive

fishermen and exhausted pelican rescuers was

ultimately a surprising example of how people with

seemingly conflicting interests can work together. No

one wanted any more pelicans to be hurt, neither did

anyone want to see fishing permanently banned on the

wharf. At the top of the wish list was a contingency plan

in case the situation reoccurs next summer.

 

The other critical issue is the cost of the emergency.

The short-term local care that pelicans receive at NAR

costs about $30 per bird. Longer-term rehab at IBRRC

is $100 a bird. This summer, IBRRC had to get a

$15,000 bailout loan from the International Fund for

Animal Welfare to pay for the 175 pelican casualties

that came from Santa Cruz. IBRRC director Jay

Holcomb issued a statement demanding that the U.S.

Fish & Wildlife Service step in to protect the pelicans

and that the city of Santa Cruz "acknowledge that the

Endangered Species Act takes precedence over

recreational fishing for baitfish."

 

For its part, Fish & Game appears highly motivated to

enact new regulations that will protect the pelicans and

still allow fishing off the wharf. "The take [of pelicans] is

becoming unreasonable," Spear declared.

 

Among the solutions brainstormed were modification of

fishing gear; rotating closures on the wharf; aerators to move the bait away from the wharf; and public education for fishermen. Whatever happens on the Santa Cruz Wharf will be a test case for other municipal fishing piers in California.

 

Contemplating the rebounding pelican population, abundant sardines and growing numbers of fishermen, wharf supe Dan Beucher waxes philosophical.

"Too many living creatures all in the same spot," he says ruefully. "It's the future."

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