Monday, August 20, 2018
News Roundup

Light but lethal, stray fishing line takes toll on seabirds

CLEARWATER — On a sunny spring morning the mangroves bustled with life. Nesting birds flapped wings, hopped and preened amongst a cacophony of clucks, grunts and peeps. It was one of those days when Ann Paul and Mark Rachal were confident their jobs were the best in Florida.

They work for Audubon. Paul is the regional director of West Central Florida's Coastal Island Sanctuaries. Rachal guards those seabird-important islands from Crystal River to Charlotte Harbor like the most territorial mother hen.

As he steered the boat through Clearwater Harbor, Rachal listened to the calling white ibis, great blue herons and reddish egrets. Standing in the bow, Paul scanned a 10-acre island near Clearwater Pass through binoculars.

"I never get tired of this,'' she said.

The island was a maternity ward for a half dozen protected species, including one of her very favorites, the humble brown pelican. As she watched, a parent bird swooped in with a morsel for her chick to eat.

The wind shifted.

The Audubon folks smelled death.

• • •

During the Gilded Age it was men with shotguns who killed Florida's wading birds and pelicans for feathers worn in hats by stylish New York and Paris women. Florida's bird population is still recovering.

Next was pesticides that got into the food chain. Brittle eggs broke before they could hatch. Bird populations are still recovering.

The destruction of mangroves and grass beds took an enormous toll on seabirds and the fish they eat.

Now, in the 21st century, Floridians don't legally slaughter birds for their plumes. The pesticide DDT long ago was banned. Laws protect mangroves and grass beds from wholesale obliteration. But if you're a wading bird or a pelican, it's no time to perform an end zone dance.

"Yuck,'' Mark Rachal said.

"I hate to see this,'' Ann Paul said, putting down her binoculars.

A decaying pelican hung from a mangrove branch by a fishing line.

• • •

Rachal steered the boat toward the island as Paul helped navigate the tricky shallows. A few years ago, she ran aground and spent eight hours waiting for the tide to turn.

She grew up in Gainesville, one of those wild Florida girls who can't get enough of wild things. She graduated from Cornell University, home of America's great ornithology school, and landed at Audubon. With her late husband, Rich Paul, she spent decades watching Tampa Bay's birds like a hawk. She's 64 now and so brown from the sun that on birding expeditions she dresses like a bedouin.

Rachal, 35, was another wildlife kid. Birds, turtles — it didn't matter. After Davidson, he ended up at Eastern Michigan University with a master's in wildlife science. He moved to Florida without a job and began volunteering for Audubon. Now he's full-time bird-crazed.

"I don't think we can get any closer to the island,'' he told Paul, as the water got shallower. "We're going to have to wade in.''

• • •

Who doesn't love pelicans?

In the air, they are both graceful and somehow prehistoric, circling a school of minnows below, folding back their wings and diving with open bill. When ashore, they stumble around like beloved clowns.

For a lot of people, especially tourists, the sight of a pelican makes the heart go pitty-pat and camera shutters click. You can find postcards that date to the early 20th century that display pelicans being fed by delighted tourists.

It's illegal to feed pelicans now. But many folks haven't broken themselves of the habit. They think it's fun. They convince themselves that they're helping pelicans by throwing them unwanted bait or fish, that pelicans would starve without them.

Pelicans aren't dumb. Like most living things, they accept a free lunch with enthusiasm.

"The problem,'' Ann Paul said, "is pelicans come to associate people with food. And that's not a good thing.''

Think about it. A pelican sees a fisherman, lands next to the boat or the pier, and hopes for a handout. A spurned pelican might grab the bait at the end of the line or even a hooked and struggling fish. If the pelican is lucky, the angler will gently reel him in and remove the hook and untangle the line. But more often than not, the irritated angler simply breaks the line.

The pelican flies off, dangling the line behind him like an advertising banner from a plane. At dusk, the pelican lands in the mangroves. The wind blows the line around a branch. Pelicans are large birds with a 7-foot wingspread. But with their hollow bones, they weigh only about 8 pounds. They often lack the strength to break the line. They die of thirst or starve.

Nobody knows how many pelicans are actually killed by fishing line. But Florida boasts 2,776 miles of shoreline and another 11,000 miles of rivers, streams and waterways. Discarded fishing line is often draped across adjacent vegetation like Christmas garland. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists believe fishing line now ranks as the No. 1 killer of pelicans.

Audubon recently initiated a program to help. The environmental organization is training volunteers at Florida fishing piers and marinas to unhook and untangle line-caught pelicans. At the Sunshine Skyway piers, near the mouth of Tampa Bay, efforts are already paying off under the direction of manager Mike Patterson. Volunteers who had anchored their boat under the piers not long ago saved 26 pelicans in a single day. The birds had grabbed the lines of fishermen reeling in bait.

Usually there is no happy ending.

"It's a tough way to die,'' Ann Paul said.

• • •

Rachal began wading toward what scientists call "Clearwater Harbor I-25 Bird Colony.'' A laughing gull, scolding him, barreled past like a motorist with road rage. A stingray erupted from the muddy bottom and flapped away in utter disgust.

The island, one of 29 rookeries in the Tampa Bay area, is among the most productive. Last year the Audubon biologists counted 500 nesting pairs of birds on I-25, mostly pelicans, but even a few rare reddish egrets, a vanishing species. Endangered least terns and American oystercatchers, ground nesters, patrol every inch of sand.

The smell of decay grew ever stronger.

"When I was in graduate school, I did a lot of road kill studies,'' Rachal said. "So I'm used to this.''

Perched close to the spidery roots of the red mangroves, Rachal confronted the rotting pelican. His eyes took in the fish hook in what was left of the bill. From the bill he saw that the fishing line climbed into the mangroves, where it had claimed the life of a white ibis, another protected species. From the ibis the line descended again — and led to another dead pelican.

"Sometimes we'll find a dead pelican,'' Rachal said, "and with it will be the vultures that came in to eat the dead pelican, got caught in the line, and died themselves.''

One island. One strand of line. Three dead birds.

Every fall, bird lovers from Audubon, Tampa Bay Watch and the fishing community volunteer their time to remove fishing line from mangroves. No cleanup statistics have been compiled. However, since 2007 anglers have deposited 17 miles of line — nearly two tons — in the 700 recycling bins Tampa Bay Watch has placed at piers, marinas, parks and tackle stores throughout the bay area.

"There's no end to it,'' Rachal said, his face inches from the decomposing pelican.

He clipped the line and began tugging.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or [email protected]

     
 
Comments
Crossing guard admits to accidentally killing gopher tortoise in Dunedin

Crossing guard admits to accidentally killing gopher tortoise in Dunedin

A crossing guard turned himself in to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, saying he was the person seen on video running over an endangered gopher tortoise at an elementary school on Saturday. Robert Dantschisch, 48, saw surveillance video from the...
Updated: 10 minutes ago
Jury convicts man for sexually assaulting a woman on a plane as his wife sat next to him

Jury convicts man for sexually assaulting a woman on a plane as his wife sat next to him

It was a late-night flight from Las Vegas, and the woman rested her head on the window as the plane neared Detroit.She was startled awake by the man in the middle seat next to her. His hand was down her unbuttoned pants, and her shirt was undone.The ...
Updated: 12 minutes ago
Rob Kazmier’s Hernando County coaching roots get deeper

Rob Kazmier’s Hernando County coaching roots get deeper

BROOKSVILLE — Coach Kaz has been a Hernando County high school football fixture since his days as a 19-year-old volunteer assistant at Nature Coast. This season, he has a program to call his own.Rob Kazmier is the new head coach at Hernando Hig...
Updated: 28 minutes ago
Pasco considers new 3-year contract with unionized workers

Pasco considers new 3-year contract with unionized workers

NEW PORT RICHEY — After 14 months of bargaining and one declared impasse, Pasco County’s unionized workers have approved a new three-year contract agreement by an overwhelming margin.Pasco commissioners are scheduled to consider ratifying the agreeme...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Red Tide or not, Pinellas County confident it will reach record tourism tax dollars

Red Tide or not, Pinellas County confident it will reach record tourism tax dollars

Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater, Pinellas County’s tourism arm, is on par to surpass the $54.7 million it collected in bed tax money last fiscal year. Even if a bout of Red Tide hits the beaches hard. It would be the highest amount of money the count...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Woman killed in alligator attack in South Carolina

Woman killed in alligator attack in South Carolina

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — Authorities in South Carolina say an alligator attacked a woman who was walking her dog, pulling her underwater in a lagoon and killing her.Beaufort County Coroner Edward Allen identified the woman as 45-year-old Cassandra ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Hernando’s Westside Elementary celebrates its A grade

Hernando’s Westside Elementary celebrates its A grade

SPRING HILL — Only a few years ago, Westside Elementary was struggling. During the 2013-14 school year, the school received a D grade from the state. It would have been an F if not for the state’s "safety net" rule, which prevents schools from droppi...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Justin Watson standing out in battle for Bucs’ final receiver spot

Justin Watson standing out in battle for Bucs’ final receiver spot

In the battle for the fifth receiver spot, Justin Watson needed to stand out.  Being 6-foot-3, 216 pounds helps. But the Penn rookie needed a play to separate himself from the pack.He got it at the end of the first half in Saturday's 30-14 win a...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Hernando Bloodmobile for Aug. 24

Bloodmobile LifeSouth Community Blood Center will have blood drives at the following off-site locations during the coming week.Aug. 24: 9 a.m. to noon, Auto Nation Ford, 7200 Broad St., Brooksville; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Publix, 160 Mariner Blvd., Sprin...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Hernando Vendors for Aug. 24

VendorsVendors are needed for the following events:• Vendors are needed for a Craft and Rummage Sale from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 29 and 30 at VFW Post 8681, 18940 Drayton St., Shady Hills. Vendor spaces (inside post and outside) are $10 for non-membe...
Updated: 1 hour ago