Light but lethal, stray fishing line takes toll on seabirds

A brown pelican swoops by Clearwater Harbor I-25 Bird Colony. One of 29 rookeries in the bay area, it is among the most productive.
A brown pelican swoops by Clearwater Harbor I-25 Bird Colony. One of 29 rookeries in the bay area, it is among the most productive.
Published May 24, 2014

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.

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"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