Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

Groups clean contaminated harbor birds

Oily threats to local birds don't always stem from petroleum spills.

At least two dozen brown pelicans contaminated with fish oil were recently linked to open fish-waste disposal bins at the cleaning stations of the Crescent City Harbor.

"Fish oil is non-toxic to them internally but as an external contaminant, it affects them the same as petroleum," said Monte Merrick, member of Bird Ally X, one of the groups helping save the threatened birds.

Fish oil disrupts the waterproofing ability of birds, allowing cold

seawater to get under their down, reaching their skin. Without their

natural waterproofing ability the birds can become hypothermic and avoid

hunting in the water, eventually leading to starvation, Merrick said.

The Humboldt Wildlife Care Center (HWCC) in Bayside currently has 13

brown pelicans and two western gulls, said HWCC director John Kelsey.

HWCC and Bird Ally X are continuing to collect contaminated birds from

the harbor.

The Marine Wildlife Care Facility at Humboldt State University has

helped with some of the cleaning of the large birds, but its ability to

intervene is limited.

As part of the statewide Oiled Wildlife Care Network, HSU must

maintain its readiness in case of a petroleum spill - not a fish oil


"It's like a fire department," said Richard Golightly, director of

the facility at HSU. "You can't leave the firehouse completely empty but

it doesn't mean you wouldn't loan your neighbor some things to help."

In 2006, dozens of oily gulls were found, but it was initially

thought to be from petroleum, so Golightly's team at HSU took on the

cleaning effort. Once it was discovered that the gulls had been

contaminated from a local fish processing plant, they were all

transported to a care center in the San Francisco Bay Area for

rehabilitation, Golightly said.

"Fish oil is very different because of the politics involved,"

Merrick said.

The HWCC has spent over $1,000 in just a few days for the housing

necessary to rehabilitate these large birds, Kelsey said. HWCC usually

deals with smaller animals.

Crescent City Harbor allows recreational fishermen to throw

fish-waste left over from cleaning into bins, which are emptied daily by

harbor staff, said Harbormaster Richard Young.

Occasionally the lids for these bins are not replaced, tempting birds

to have an easy meal, with a side of debilitating fish oil, Young said.

Fortunately, preventing this from happening in the future is an easy

fix that has already been remedied by the HWCC and Bird Ally X.

"The bins have been modified to have hinged lids and exclude birds,"

said Jeff Dayton, director of the Eureka Field Office for the California

Deptartment of Fish and Game's Office of Spill Prevention and Response.

Dayton was first contacted about the fish oil problem by Deborah

Jaques during her recent visit to Crescent City.

Jaques, who has been studying pelicans since 1985, heard people at

the harbor inquiring about the unnatural, wet-looking state of the birds

when she noticed the fish-waste bins.

She called Dayton and International Bird Rescue, which set off a

chain of communication and collaboration to bring the birds back to good


Two birds had to be euthanized due to previously broken wings that

healed irregularly. They would not have been able to hunt in the wild,

Merrick said.

All parties involved would like to remind the public not to feed wild

birds and properly dispose of fish waste.

The HWCC is accepting donations to rehabilitate these birds. For more

information, visit