TIMES STAFF WRITER
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
"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.
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
Those these alliterative slogans
will not capture any awards for syntactic excellence,
Kronman thinks they will get the message
"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
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
'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.'