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Charges expected in deaths of terns

April 19, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Capping a 10 1/2 -month investigation that came to be known as "Terngate," a tugboat captain and his deckhand are expected to be charged this morning in connection with the deaths last summer of hundreds of seabirds in the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex.

The charges in the case that came to light in June when the corpses of newly hatched terns began washing up on local beaches will be announced at a news conference at Long Beach City Hall led by city prosecutor John Fentis.

California Department of Fish and Game investigators believe Ralph Botticelli, owner of San Diego-based Point Loma Maritime Services, and a deckhand were attempting to move two privately owned barges from the port complex to Santa Barbara for a fireworks display when more than 500 fledgling Caspian and elegant terns plummeted off the sides, most being too young to fly.

"The lesson here," said Garry George of Audubon Society's Los Angeles chapter, "is that migratory birds are protected, along with their nests: No one can perpetrate attacks on wildlife simply because they are in your way."

Many environmentalists had complained that state and federal wildlife authorities should have realized that the barges had become a tern nesting site, worthy of protection. They also grew frustrated with the length of the investigation, with the expected charges coming just two months before the statute of limitations expires.

In an earlier interview, Botticelli attributed the deaths to "an unfortunate accident" that occurred when his crew approached the barge and accidentally scared the birds.

"If our guys had known there were birds out there, they wouldn't have used that barge," he said. "We learned our lessons. We will never approach a barge without fully knowing what's on it."

Meanwhile, environmentalists have been trying to determine where the significant colony of migrating terns will attempt to nest this summer. Port of Los Angeles ornithologist Kathy Keane is hoping the birds will congregate in Huntington Beach's Bolsa Chica wetlands. They had settled there annually until 2006, when they were scared off by predators and relocated to the barges.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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