From the Los Angeles Times

Pier Fishing Is Taking Toll on Pelicans


September 30 2001

SANTA BARBARA -- A man and a boy sit side by side on an old wooden dock, dangling fishing lines into cool green water. It's one of those pictures that really is worth a thousand words, explaining Americans' love of family and the outdoors.

But wildlife experts in this ever-so-aware seaside community say there is an ugly side to this picturesque image. Dozens of endangered pelicans are being hooked and snared in fishing lines this year. Some are so severely injured that they don't survive even after being rescued.

Now some people want to put a stop to pier fishing to ensure the safety of the ungainly seabirds. "It's terrible," said June Taylor, a volunteer with the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network who feels a special affinity for the pelicans. As opposed to ill-tempered gulls and fidgety herons, she characterizes pelicans as the Labrador retrievers of the bird world.

"They're very gentle. Everybody who works with them loves them." Fishermen who have to fight off the birds for their catch don't necessarily agree, but Taylor loves the birds so much she has converted her backyard into a floating MASH unit for seabirds. At the moment, 15 injured pelicans are trying to recover in the concrete pond she has lined with tropical plants. Those birds are among the 58 pelicans she has treated this year.

That's nearly as many as she nursed last year.

Temporary Ban Is Imposed in Santa Cruz

Nobody knows exactly what's happening, but it's not confined to Santa Barbara. In Santa Cruz, the city and the state Department of Fish and Game imposed a temporary ban earlier this month on fishing along much of the pier after scores of birds became entangled in fishing line while feeding on schools of anchovies.

"Historically, pelicans have gotten tangled in fishing lines for a long time," said Mervin Hee, the patrol chief for the South Coast region of Fish and Game.

But he said the harassment he endured from the birds last week while fishing off Point Loma near San Diego was unlike anything he'd ever experienced. "It was unbelievable," he said. "Usually, they stay 10 to 20 feet from the boat.

This time they were very aggressive, coming right up to the boat. As you are throwing your bait out they attack the bait in the air."

Kristine Barsky, a marine biologist for Fish and Game in Santa Barbara, suggested that the proliferation of bait fish on the South Coast this year may have emboldened the birds. But that's just speculation. "I don't think anybody has a good explanation for why this is an issue this year," she said.

Easy Demeanor Spells Trouble for Pelicans

One of the things that gets pelicans in trouble is the same thing thatendears them to people like Taylor. Easily accustomed to humans and floppily unwary, they approach fishermen, inevitably getting tangled in fishing lines and catching hooks in their mouths.

"I had to cut a piece of flap off one to get a hook out," said Ramon Rivera. A slender, gray-haired 42-year-old medical technologist from Camarillo, he was fishing off Stearns Wharf on Thursday. "These guys are so accustomed to people now."

More than a dozen pelicans waddled around the pier, watching everything the fishermen were doing. When Rivera hooked a small fish, they flocked to him with a surprising speed, like children gathering around an ice cream truck. He waved his arms to keep them back.

"The majority of the ones I see here are old and infirm," he said. "I don't think they can make it on their own."

Barsky said the pelicans she sees loitering on piers in Southern California look pretty healthy. She thinks the problem is people feeding the birds.

Citing similar problems with bears at Yosemite National Park and raccoons in the suburbs, she said, "It's a heck of a lot easier to stand around on the pier to get a handout than it is to go out and work for your food."

Entanglements with fishing line is only the latest mishap to afflict brown pelicans, which were placed on the endangered species list three decades ago after nearly being wiped out by the effects of the pesticide DDT. A decade ago, a father and son were arrested for cutting the beaks off some of the birds in California. More recently, wildlife experts in Southern California have investigated reports that someone was breaking the wings of birds.

Fishing hooks and line are still the biggest problems, by all accounts. The Pelican Man's Bird Sanctuary in Sarasota, Fla., which claims to have restored 100,000 birds to the wild, said on its Web site that 90% of the brown pelicans that are injured or killed have been caught in fishing line.

Nora Rojek, Fish and Game's seabird biologist, said she was not aware of any problems affecting pelicans, beyond the incident in Santa Cruz. "That was definitely an unusual occurrence," she said.

But, Rojek said, if more birds are venturing into harm's way, it could be a sign that things are actually getting better. "Our marine resources are better protected," she said. "Pelicans are coming back, there are more bait fish and more people. So there is more interaction" among all these population groups than in the past.

At one time, the number of breeding brown pelicans in the Channel Islands had fallen to a few hundred. Now, she said, there are 10,000 at Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands, their prime California breeding grounds.


Officials Resist Ban on Wharf Fishing

Some wildlife advocates in Santa Barbara have said the only way to keep the sociable--or aggressive, depending on your affection for them--birds from harm is to ban wharf fishing. City officials have so far resisted that.

"That would be an extreme measure," said Mick Kronman, harbor operations manager.

But he insisted the city is not ignoring the problem. He said Santa Barbara has embarked on a "multifaceted response" that includes sweeps of the pier three times a day to remove discarded line and hooks. Officials also are asking tenant businesses, including restaurants and a bait shop, to keep trash cans covered to discourage the beaked burglars.

State Fish and Game wardens are making sure no one is purposely injuring the birds. The city will soon post signs advising, "Please be kind, recycle your line." And, "Be a charmer, not a harmer."

Those these alliterative slogans will not capture any awards for syntactic excellence, Kronman thinks they will get the message across.

"We believe we can mitigate the problem without extreme" responses, such as shutting down the pier to fishing, he said.

Betsy Kramer, another volunteer with the wildlife rescue group, is willing to wait and see if the strategy succeeds before calling for more drastic action. "They've done quite a lot of work," she said of the city.

Taylor is not as optimistic.

More worrisome to her are injuries to birds in places where there are few if any volunteers willing to wrestle the big birds to free them from their bonds. "There is a bird at the Ventura Marina right now with line on its wings and coming out its mouth, but there's no one there to help," she said.

'It's a heck of a lot easier to stand around on the pier to get a handout than it is to go out and work for your food.'

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