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Endangered Pelicans Found Maimed on Southland Beaches

Environment:Since 1999, 25 mutilated birds have been reported to one group. Some suspect a fisherman may be behind attacks.

March 25, 2001|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Someone out there is hurting the pelicans. Dr. Christine Sellers is sure of it.

The birds come to her veterinary office helpless and starving, washed up on the beach with wings in tangled and contorted positions. Sometimes the bone protrudes, the wing broken in half and flipped over on itself.

Most won't fly again. Many won't even get the chance. Sellers will have to euthanize them.

These aren't accidents, she says. These aren't clueless birds slapping into the ocean on anchovy runs. It's not natural.

"I imagine that you would have to secure both sides of the wing and crack it with your foot," Sellers said. "How would they do it otherwise?"

Ten years after two fishermen--a father and a son--were caught sawing the beaks off the endangered birds up and down the Southern California coast, a wave of new mutilations appears to have resumed along the coastlines of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and into Malibu, those who work with pelicans say.

At her office in Santa Barbara, Sellers sees one or two of the injuries a month. The Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network has documented 25 cases in the last two years, most of those birds retrieved from Oxnard and Ventura.

The mystery, they say, is who would be so violent?

"When I saw the first one, I was honestly hoping the poor bird had accidentally run into a propeller," said Kathy Fisher, a onetime network volunteer in Ventura County. "It's not like you'll ever forget it."

The group has put up posters around the two counties' harbors, offering a $2,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest. June Taylor, who runs a bird sanctuary out of her home for the network, said the group has received one tip but has not been able to prove anything.

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California brown pelicans were listed as an endangered species in the late 1970s after being decimated by DDT poisoning in their Channel Islands breeding grounds. But in the intervening years, the birds have bounced back with healthier young--to the point that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was at one time considering taking them off the list.

Many fishermen say the birds seem to be doing all right. They aren't timid about following fishing boats--particularly those seeking squid, although pelicans tend to prefer anchovies and sardines, which are not heavily fished off the central coast.

And they are often ensnared.

"They are quite a problem," said Paul Crane, a Simi Valley sportfisherman who once ran a charter boat. "They are a nuisance, because we're the easiest means of food."

A pelican is liable to go after a fisherman's bait and end up with the hook lodged in its characteristic bucket pouch. In the worst case, a fisherman will yank on the pole, ripping the hook from the bird's gullet. That leaves a gaping hole, allows fish to slip through and renders a pelican unaware of the fact that it is starving, Sellers, said.

Or just as likely, the birds get fishing line wrapped around their legs or wings. About 10% of the pelicans he sees have been hooked or entangled in fishing line, said David Pereksta, a biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Sometimes the line is so tight that the bird loses both feet.

"I've watched them get hooked repeatedly. It's no fault of the fishermen if the pelican keeps grabbing at their bait," Pereksta said.

But those are accidents. A fisherman who would willfully harm an animal is a different story.

Regulators aren't convinced, however, that they are dealing with a human villain.

"This sounds pretty incredible that a large amount of birds are turning up injured over a stretch of coastline," Pereksta said. This is "not a big fishery for sardines or anchovies." But, he said, people on a party boat might get frustrated if they keep snaring pelicans.

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It is against federal law to injure or kill a protected species, and the penalties can be fines of up to $5,000 and jail terms of up to six months. Civil penalties can reach $25,000.

But violators are seldom caught. And in this case, Santos Cabral, a Ventura-based state Department of Fish and Game officer who has worked with the Santa Barbara network, said that unless he or someone else witnesses any abuse, it would be difficult to prove exactly what happened.

"Is it human-inflicted or natural causes?" he asked. "It's been known that because they dive from as high up as 25 feet, some of them haven't perfected the diving technique and stuff happens. If they can break a neck, I'm sure they can break a wing."

Cabral said the Department of Fish and Game has been documenting the wing breaks and investigates each incident "like any officer or detective would at a crime scene." But the pelicans are usually washed far from the accident site or are picked up by animal control or a network volunteer.

And because it isn't an obvious crime--like a bullet in the head or a clearly slit gullet--the department hasn't been able to prove malicious intent, and won't be convinced of human interaction until it has a witness.

"We do have a watchful eye out," Cabral said.

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