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Hazards in harbor

Fish scraps are deadly to birds, officials warn

Pelicans congregate near a fish-cleaning station at Crescent City Harbor: “It’s an entirely preventable problem.” Del Norte Triplicate/Richard Wiens
Pelicans congregate near a fish-cleaning station at Crescent City Harbor: “It’s an entirely preventable problem.” Del Norte Triplicate/Richard Wiens
About a dozen dead brown pelicans lay scattered on the rock slope walls below the fish cleaning station in the Crescent City Harbor on Friday.

Moving away from the fish cleaning station, the density of departed seabirds on the rocks lessened until there weren’t any — evidence of the likely source of their demise.

Fishermen often feed fish scraps produced after cleaning their catch to seabirds looking for a bite. Seagulls can eat almost anything, but brown pelicans in the wild feast on smaller fish.

“We’ve dug whole salmon heads out of pelicans,” said John Kelsey, president of the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center, which has received more than 20 ailing pelicans found in the Crescent City Harbor in the last two days. “They eat whole fish in the wild, but they are only 4 inches or so long.”

Beyond choking on fish waste, pelicans can also be harmed by the fish oil produced when cleaning fish, which prevents their feathers from keeping them at their typical body temperature of 103 to 106 degrees. When their feathers don’t work properly, the risk of hypothermia rises.

The local pelican problem is exacerbated by a statewide trend of starving juvenile brown pelicans crowding bird rescue centers up and down the coast. 

This appears to be a banner year for brown pelican offspring and there may just not be enough food.

“Either a larger than normal number of young produced at Gulf of California breeding colonies or decreased prey availability, or a combination of both, is causing the young birds to have not enough food to eat,” according to a report by Keith Benson, fish and wildlife biologist with Redwood National and State Parks.

Redwood Parks officials recently started noticing odd behavior in pelicans typical of starving animals, like being lethargic and not moving away from humans. Starving pelicans have been well documented in southern and central California, and the trend will likely be more apparent on the North Coast as the birds migrate north, according to Bensen’s report.

Redwood Parks policy is to let nature run its course if animals are dying of natural causes, and visitors are advised not to feed pelicans, which is against the law.  Starving pelicans may even be a sign of good news for the species that was once listed as threatened.

“Starving juvenile pelicans may be an indicator that the population has reached ecological capacity and are fully recovered,” said Bensen’s report.

The pelicans ailing from careless fishermen’s fish waste, however, are less welcomed by the environmental community. And the hazard is even greater this summer because ocean fishermen are having a stellar season.

“It’s an entirely preventable problem so the frustration is running pretty high these days,” said Monte Merrick, whose organization Bird Ally X, operates the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center.

A team from the center collected 11 pelicans on Friday from the Crescent City Harbor and witnessed another 20-30 birds looking sickly on an island nearby.

Some of the slow-moving pelicans have reportedly been harassed in the  harbor in the past week, with Humboldt Wildlife Care Center hearing reports of at least six pelicans being run over by vehicles.

Reggie and Sandy Montoya of Crescent City have assumed the task of informing fishermen near the cleaning station not to feed the pelicans and to keep the fish waste bins closed off from the prying birds.

“I have to be here,” said Reggie Montoya, who has worked at bird rescue centers in the past. “I feel like I don’t have a choice in the matter.”

Humboldt Wildlife Care Center has taken in more than 70 pelicans since Monday, with about 20 from Crescent City, a few from Woodley  Island Marina in Eureka, and more than 40 from Trinidad. The center constructed a 9,600-square-foot tent facility to handle the influx of contaminated pelicans that came in last summer.

“We don’t ordinarily treat this many patients,” said Merrick, who believes that the center will soon have more than 100 pelicans in its care. “For this region, that’s one for the record books.”

The ailing pelicans have to be tube fed until they are strong enough to handle a thorough cleaning to remove the fish oil.

The center estimates that it takes around $1,000 a week to feed the birds.

The HWCC is accepting donations to rehabilitate the birds. For more information, visit www.humwild.org.

Reach Adam Spencer at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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