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Wing and a prayer: Anglers on the Santa Cruz wharf have been inadvertently snagging pelicans with their hooks and tangling them in filament.

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 tourists 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 pelicans injured by fishing hooks or entangled in lines at the wharf--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 presstime, 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 Wed., 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?"

Hook, Line and Sinker

Conscientious anglers do pull up their lines when pelicans are present--or at least exercise caution. "Some of the techniques I've been noticing," said Kiet, a fisherman 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 fisherman, you're not going to cast into the birds," says Bob Strickland, president of United Anglers of California, a San Jose­based organization with 6,000 members. "Educated fishermen know better," he says.

It's less experienced fishermen, believes Dan Beucher, who tend to be more aggressive.

Bait fishermen on the wharf are a diverse group. "You have a language barrier out there," explains Frank Ealy, owner of Santa Cruz Boat Rental and Capitola Boat and Bait.

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, which became known to rescuers as #R78, had at least 10 fishhooks embedded in him. Many of the hooks were from anchovy jigs, lines that have six tiny barbed hooks designed to snag onto any part of a fish they come in contact with.

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 needlenose pliers. A crowd of curious tourists gathered around. Cameras clicked. "Are you banding him?" an onlooker asked innocently.

Fishing 101

The brown pelican, ponderous on land, is a graceful avian 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 dives.

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 upwards 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 that it's trailing a 10-foot length of monofilament line behind it, wrapped around its foot.

Cutting the line after a bird 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 coastal foliage 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 IBRRC. "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."

On 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 laminated bright green 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 Muni Code quoted was the section that regulates ocean water sports, and soon pasted over it 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 was starting to look 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."

The California brown pelican has been listed as a federally endangered species since 1970 (under a law that preceded the Endangered 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.

Michael J. Bean, an attorney with Environmental Defense who specializes in endangered species law, says, "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," said Bean.

Whatever happens on the Santa Cruz Wharf will be a test case for other municipal fishing piers in California.

Contemplating the rebounding pelican population, an increasingly abundant sardine fishery and growing numbers of fishermen, wharf supe Dan Beucher, who has put in 27 years on the pier, waxes philosophical. "Too many living creatures all in the same spot," he says ruefully. "It's the future."

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From the October 4-10, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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