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Keep seabirds off-line

Rick Gechter, an avian care specialist with the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, examines a fishing lure on the inside of a pelican’s bill before he removes it. The pelican was picked up by a volunteer rescuer from the tip of St. Petersburg Beach, a popular fishing area.


Rick Gechter, an avian care specialist with the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, examines a fishing lure on the inside of a pelican’s bill before he removes it. The pelican was picked up by a volunteer rescuer from the tip of St. Petersburg Beach, a popular fishing area.

Sometimes a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. Last month, my colleague Jim Damaske, an avid outdoorsman and longtime photographer in this newspaper's Clearwater bureau, came across a brown pelican at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores.

"Wait until you see this bird," Damaske said to me.

A few days later, an e-mail arrived with a digital photograph of what is obviously one uncomfortable pelican.

My first reaction was, "Ouch … that's got to hurt."

Like most fishermen, I have been hooked more times than I can count but, thankfully, never in the mouth.

Unfortunately, that is where many seabirds wind up getting it, right in the beak, or in this case, the bill.

There's not much an angler can do to keep a diving bird away from an artificial lure. Today's hard-bodied baits are quite realistic in appearance.

But fishermen can learn what to do if you they find themselves suddenly hooked up to something that does take to the air.

Handling hooked birds

First, don't cut the line. Keep your cool and don't panic. Just reel the bird in slowly and follow these directions from the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary:

• If possible, ask another fisherman for help. (It is much easier if one person holds the bird while the other works on it.)

• Use a landing net and lift the bird carefully.

• Grasp the bird's bill. Do not shut the bill completely. Open it a crack so the bird can breathe.

• Restrain the bird by folding its wings flat against the body.

• Cover the bird's head with a towel or large cloth. (The darkness calms the bird and the towel protects your hand.)

• Locate the hook, then push it through the skin until you see the barb. Cover the barb before cutting it to prevent it from snapping off and injuring someone. Cut the barb off with wire cutters and back the rest of the hook out.

Never pull a hook out without first removing the barb; doing so could cause major damage to the bird. Also check for line wrapped around the bird's limbs.

• Look the bird over carefully and ensure that all fishing line and hooks have been removed. If the bird has swallowed the hook or is seriously injured, take it to a facility, such as the Indian Shores-based Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, that can treat injured birds.

• If the bird appears healthy after the hook and/or line removal, place the bird in the water or on the ground near the water. Do not release it if it seems weak or ill. Discard the hook and cut line in a trash can, not the water.

Fishing line kills

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has determined that discarded fishing line is the leading cause of death for adult brown pelicans.

In the early 1990s, before most anglers became aware of the dangers of discarded fishing line, it was common to fine dead pelicans and other seabirds on the bird-nesting islands of Tampa Bay.

During a monofilament line cleanup in Tampa Bay in 1994, volunteers found that one long strand of line had snared seven birds, causing them to starve.

Fishing line takes hundreds of years to decompose in the environment, so the only way to protect the birds is to remove the line by hand. Tampa Bay Watch, the Florida Audubon Society and other environmental groups have done a great job in recent years keeping the bird islands free of this silent killer.

So what can you do to help? Start by picking up and properly disposing of old fishing line. Even a small piece can kill.

And birds are not the only animals affected. Sea turtles, manatees, even bottlenose dolphin, have all been known to die as a result of discarded line and tackle.

You can also help by participating in the yearly monofilament line cleanup each fall. Organizers estimate that at least 200 to 300 birds that otherwise would have been entangled and killed survive thanks to these cleanup efforts. To find out more about line cleanups, go to To learn where you can properly dispose of your used fishing line, go to

Terry Tomalin can be reached at or (727) 893-8808.


Helping seabirds

If you come across a sick or injured bird, contact the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, a nonprofit avian hospital and sanctuary, at (727) 391-6211 or visit The sanctuary, located at 18328 Gulf Blvd., is open 365 days a year from 9 a.m. to sunset. Admission is free. But it takes 500 pounds of fish to feed the birds each day, so donations are appreciated.

Keep seabirds off-line 04/29/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 29, 2010 7:25pm]
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