VENICE — The ducks may be dead, but the fight lives on over the state's decision to kill the diseased birds of the Venice Canals.
Backed by a former federal wildlife veterinarian who called the kill a mistake, canal residents Thursday urged the state Fish and Game Commission to find a better way to handle future outbreaks of an avian plague called duck virus enteritis.
After the fatal virus was discovered at the canals last spring, wardens from the state Department of Fish and Game in June rounded up and killed more than 300 Venice-area ducks out of fear that they would infect migrating wildfowl.
The department also rounded up about 200 more ducks from Franklin Reservoir in the Santa Monica Mountains and the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista because it was believed that they carried the virus.
Gary L. Pearson, a former veterinarian for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now in private practice in North Dakota, told the commission that the eradication was unnecessary because the disease occurs naturally and wild birds may have an immunity.
"Killing exposed birds . . . has not worked for 20 years," Pearson said during a commission meeting in Long Beach. "It's time to look at other ways of dealing with duck plague outbreaks."
The session was the first time residents faced state wildlife officials since unsuccessfully battling the kill through a court challenge and nationally publicized protests along the banks of the scenic canals.
Commission members took no action Thursday, promising only to study a packet of research papers provided by the canal group, called the Venice Canals Conservancy. But Commissioner Albert C. Taucher said he will continue to back the eradication policy until more is known about the disease. The five-member appointed commission sets state wildlife policies.
Fish and game officials said wildlife experts from around the country endorsed the depopulation strategy at the time of the Venice outbreak as the only known way to stem the spread of the disease among the nearly 3 million wildfowl traveling the Pacific Flyway each year.
Because there is no reliable test for the herpes-type virus, it was impossible to know which birds were carriers and which were not, said Bill Clark, a wildlife biologist in charge of the state's Wildlife Investigations Laboratory near Sacramento. The answer was to destroy all the Venice ducks.
"It's not a desirable thing to do," Clark told the commission. "It was a very difficult thing to do."
The commission session was polite, a drastic contrast from the summertime brouhaha when protesters chanted "Killers!" and blared horns trying to disrupt the duck roundup. The meeting nonetheless revealed lingering neighborhood divisions over the controversial eradication--even as the newly renovated canals are again filling with ducks. Residents now count about 70 ducks that escaped the kill or hatched since, plus another 70 mallards that have migrated there.
Catherine Carson, whose Duckwatch group grudgingly endorsed the kill as necessary, said the outbreak was hastened by a canal reconstruction project that crowded ducks into small pools and by overweening duck lovers whose feedings aggravated a dangerous population boom.
She called on canal residents to leave the ducks alone. Her remarks drew criticism from conservancy member Lina Shanklin, who had split with the Duckwatch group to protest the duck kill.
"It's a real shame for a resident of the Venice Canals to blame residents for the outbreak," Shanklin said.
Pearson, who catalogued more than 50 outbreaks of duck plague nationwide since 1967, said wild birds are less vulnerable than feared because they already are exposed to the virus. He said that eradicating exposed ducks simply removes birds that might develop an immunity and replaces them with vulnerable newcomers, robbing researchers of valuable study subjects.
Pearson and conservancy members called for more research and urged the development of a vaccine for wild waterfowl similar to one used on poultry farms.