Seabirds' lives on the (fishing) line

Mark Rachal, Audubon Florida sanctuary manager, removes fishing line from a dead ibis. The same line killed three other seabirds.
Mark Rachal, Audubon Florida sanctuary manager, removes fishing line from a dead ibis. The same line killed three other seabirds.
Published May 27, 2014

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 .

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. 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.

• • •

You can find early 20th century postcards that display pelicans being fed by tourists.

It's illegal to feed pelicans now. But many folks 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.

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.

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Nobody knows how many pelicans are killed by fishing line. But Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists believe it now ranks as the No. 1 killer of pelicans.

Every fall, bird lovers from Audubon, Tampa Bay Watch and the fishing community volunteer their time to remove fishing line from mangroves. 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.