YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Los Angeles

Volunteer Tends to Lake's Fouled Fowl

Nature: Sharon Brewer patrols a Van Nuys park for discarded fishhooks and line that could injure birds.


Every day, winter and summer, Sharon Brewer makes four trips around Lake Balboa. As the Reseda woman strides along the 51/3-mile course, she scrutinizes the amoeba-shaped, man-made lake for the telltale sparkle of fishing line and the flash of fishhooks.

Her car is packed with line she has found, wound into compact bundles and tied with neat bows. The hooks, including large, multibarbed varieties designed for ocean fishing, are in plastic bags, where they cannot hurt people or wildlife.

Brewer loves the 27-acre lake and surrounding Anthony C. Beilenson Park, run by the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation. But she is horrified that people who fish there discard hooks and line with no concern for the danger to visitors and wildlife.

The popular Van Nuys park attracts walkers, joggers, birders, dog owners, cyclists and children entranced by the ducks. Lake Balboa also attracts flocks of mallards, pelicans, coots, mud hens and other water birds. The birds sometimes get tangled up in carelessly discarded fishing line and are snagged by errant hooks.

Some have died from their injuries, said Brewer, a self-appointed guardian of the park and its wildlife. She has photographs to prove it.

"I had a very good day," Brewer said on a recent afternoon. In her circuit of the lake that day, she had picked up 24 hooks and yards of the clear plastic line that can garrote a bird.

Last November, a pelican was tangled for several days in a web of line, Brewer said. It was finally taken out of the lake by one of the park's three lifeguards and an employee from the Department of Animal Regulation. The bird was treated at the California Wildlife Center in Malibu for abrasions caused by the line and other injuries but died a few days later.

To make it easier to fish injured birds out of the lake, Brewer uses two nets, one with a long, telescoping handle. On Friday, she helped a lifeguard land an injured cormorant, its wing immobilized by fishing line. She drove it to the California Wildlife Center for treatment.

"I saw a coot today that had fishing line around both his feet," said Brewer, who began visiting the park almost a year ago "to de-stress." She has photos of a Lake Balboa coot with only one intact leg; the other was sliced off by fishing line or lost in some other way.

Adults are supposed to fish in the lake only after obtaining a license, which limits fishermen to two poles. But Brewer said she has seen some people prop up a dozen poles, in hopes of pulling a tilapia or catfish from the lake, which is fed by the nearby Tillman Water Reclamation Plant.

"There are up to 50 people fishing here in the summer," she said. "They break branches off the cherry trees to use for rods, and they dig in the park for worms."

Brewer is the unofficial leader of a small group of park regulars who say the staff is inattentive, lax about enforcing regulations and unresponsive to the needs of the wildlife, all claims the parks department denies.

Park user Bette-Jane Blank of Van Nuys said staff members are slow to respond to the needs of the waterfowl. "I don't know what they do besides hose off the boats," she said, referring to pedal boats rented out during the summer and weekends. "They're not sympathetic."

Brewer and Blank have written to city officials about their concerns, and Brewer does not hesitate to tell park staff when she sees rules being broken or wildlife endangered. She has complained about skateboarders and cyclists using paths designated for pedestrians, visitors hanging trash in the trees and the infrequency of patrols by park staff members.

She lobbied to get two additional signs installed stating park rules and has asked to have the lifeguard station clearly marked so visitors will know where to go for help.

In response to a letter from Brewer and Blank, James Combs, assistant general manager for the department, said the lifeguards were expected to patrol the lake by boat every three hours. He said staff members were aware that birds had been injured and said the department has procedures for handling such injuries.

Even as Brewer has lobbied for a safer park, she has ruffled feathers. The parks department has decided to form a volunteer patrol, made up of concerned visitors, to augment paid staff. According to department spokeswoman Jane Kolb, the group of five or six volunteers, wearing baseball caps marked "Friends of Lake Balboa," will help keep an eye on the park and inform scofflaws of the rules.

Brewer was recently told by Valley Ranger Tom Cotter that she will not be on the volunteer patrol. Kolb said department officials, including Cotter, had decided that "she wouldn't make a good representative of the department." The new volunteer patrol will be introduced at a public meeting in February, Kolb said.

The term "lifeguards" is something of a misnomer because swimming is not allowed in the shallow lake. Brewer and others say the lifeguards should spend more time scrutinizing the park, its birds and its visitors.

Brewer said she thinks the lifeguards resent the waterfowl "because they make a mess, and [the lifeguards] have to clean it up."

Kolb pointed out that the 80-acre park is large and busy.

"On a good weekend, we have 40,000 visitors," she said. "There's a certain problem in patrolling that large an area and keeping everybody happy."

Los Angeles Times Articles