12 May 2014: Analysis

Brown Pelicans: A Test Case
For the Endangered Species Act

Brown pelicans were removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List in 2009, in what was considered a major conservation success story. But a recent crash in Pacific Coast populations of sardines, the pelican’s prime food, is posing new threats to these oddly elegant birds.

by ted williams

Brown pelicans, arguably our most iconic coastal species, were part of the reason the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System was established in 1903. No sooner had they recovered from plume hunters who shot them for the millinery trade than DDT and its relatives nearly ushered them off the planet. In 1970 the species was declared endangered; but as these biocides were banned and trickled out of food chains, the birds recovered again.

In 2009, amid enormous fanfare, the brown pelican was removed from the Endangered Species List. Environmentalists touted the delisting as among the greatest success stories of the Endangered Species Act. But since then, California brown pelicans – slightly smaller versions of the subspecies seen on the East and Gulf Coasts – have experienced unprecedented nesting

View Gallery
Brown pelican in flight

A sharp decline in sardines has jeopardized the California brown pelican's recovery.
failures and starved to death by the thousands because Pacific sardines, their most important food, have disappeared.

It’s not just the pelicans that are in trouble. The lack of sardines is speeding the decline of marbled murrelets, listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. It has also caused widespread nesting failure among Brandt’s cormorants and mass starvation among sea lions. Even the act itself may be in trouble. Unless the birds start doing better, its failure in this high-profile case could be used by those who find the law inconvenient and want Congress to “fix” it, as one might fix – i.e., emasculate – a cat.

Even well-fed sea lions and pelicans will hang around docks, scrounging offal discarded by sport and commercial fishermen. But in California both species have been so ravenous they’ve come to depend on this food source. In the melee, sea lions wound and kill pelicans (mostly juveniles inexperienced at hunting on their own), and pelicans get fouled with fish oil from the offal. Unlike petroleum, fish oil isn’t toxic, but in cold weather it’s just as deadly because it breaks down feather barbules so they don’t interlock, thereby causing hypothermia.

Just as the fish-oil problem is a direct result of the sardine collapse, so too is mortality and injury from fishing lines and hooks, as I learned when I visited International Bird Rescue’s San Francisco Bay Center 50 miles north of the city. Apart from starving pelicans so hungry they mob staffers who bring them fish, the center’s most common patients have been pelicans injured by fishing line and hooks. Even well-fed pelicans will follow boats, snatching baited hooks and lures. But, as with fish-oil victims,
Pelicans are one of many indicator species that fisheries managers ignore at the peril of marine ecosystems.
California’s fishing-tackle casualties tend to be inexperienced juveniles desperate for food.

Something like 80 percent of California brown pelicans breed in Mexico. In the U.S., they breed off the coast of Los Angeles on two of the five Channel Islands — most on Anacapa ("House of the Pelicans" in the Chumash Indian language), the rest on Santa Barbara. They normally summer as far north as Washington, but the lack of fish to the south has apparently caused them to remain on the Pacific Northwest’s fish-rich Columbia River, sometimes into December when they’ve suffered frostbite and injury from storms. Last year, at least 20,000 roosted on 62-acre East Sand Island at the river’s mouth.

While common murres haven’t been seen to starve, they have been killed by starving pelicans. Starting in 2010 and at least through 2012, pelicans shook adult murres in order to eat their regurgitated stomach contents; and they devoured chicks. In Oregon, where this behavior had never before been reported, hundreds of pelican-killed murres littered the shoreline around Newport.

Pelicans are just one of many indicator species that fisheries managers ignore at the peril of both marine ecosystems and commercial fishermen. Management of all fish needs to be predicated not just on what can sustain the industry but what can also sustain wildlife, as per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s written but seldom-followed guidelines. When fish-eating wildlife starts dying of starvation, something has gone dreadfully wrong in the ocean, and commercial fishing for the depleted species needs to cease.

Yet sardine fishing continues. Presiding over the current crash has been the Pacific Fishery Management Council – a group of 14 state, tribal, and appointed representatives that, under NOAA oversight, regulates most West Coast fishing. Although it’s accurate in this case, the word “crash” is reviled by managers because wild fluctuations in sardine populations are normal.

Those fluctuations are just one of the reasons sardines are among the hardest of all fish to manage. “It’s almost impossible to estimate sardine abundance,” declares NOAA fisheries biologist Alec MacCall. “The models don’t work. The fish pretty much defy all our ideas of what’s really
During the U.S. sardine famine, production of California brown pelicans has been extremely low.
going on. We don’t know where the older fish come from. They just show up in the spring.”

In the U.S., few if any fish are managed more conservatively than sardines. MacCall reports that U.S. sardine fishermen are allowed to take no more than 20 percent of mature fish while Japan, South America, and South Africa all have taken 70 percent, thereby putting their fishermen permanently out of business.

During the U.S. sardine famine, now in its sixth year, production of California brown pelicans has been extraordinarily low. There are no figures because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in violation of the Endangered Species Act, declined to do proper post-delisting monitoring from 2009 through 2013.

Jeff Phillips of the service’s Ventura, California, field office says the reason his agency didn’t do “more” (i.e., meaningful) monitoring is “limited funding due to a litigation-driven work load.” Translation: Instead of managing wildlife, biologists have had to spend huge amounts of time testifying in court in cases involving the Endangered Species Act and complying with court-ordered settlements agreed to by the Justice Department. The suits are brought by well-meaning environmental groups that want hundreds of species listed as endangered regardless of what is known about their status. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say the barrage of litigation has caused the agency to lose control of Endangered Species Act priorities.

Anti-environmentalists threaten the act, as well. Few challenges faced by wildlife advocates have proven more daunting than preserving the law from those whose profits it might reduce.

While the Fish and Wildlife Service was otherwise occupied, seabird biologist Laurie Harvey, formerly with the National Park Service, did a bit of monitoring on her own. In 2012 she could find only five chicks on Anacapa. By way of comparison, 2006 production was close to 10,000.

“In 2012 we had the worst year since 1970 when there were only four chicks,” she told me. “But the 1970 failure was directly related to DDT. In 2012 pelicans abandoned their nests; they weren’t able to feed their chicks. There was lots of starvation.” Harvey did only early-season monitoring in 2013; but Kate Faulkner, natural resources chief at Channel Islands National Park, saw enough during late spring and summer to call production “very poor.”

I have a special fondness for brown pelicans because we fish together so often. They show me pods of jacks, king mackerel, false albacore, and blackfin tuna by keying in on the baitfish these swift predators push to the surface. I love the way brown pelicans skim over the water no more than a
Delistings of endangered species aren’t supposed to coincide with precipitous population declines.
foot above the waves, how they preen and bicker, how they circle and dive, extending and stretching their wings straight behind them as if they were double jointed. Of the world’s seven pelican species, they’re the only one that plunge-dives. Air sacs throughout their bodies protect them from impact. Underwater they open their huge bill pouches like throw nets. Then, back on the surface, they strain out as much as three gallons of seawater, tilting up their heads and swallowing their catch. They don’t always dive for their prey. Sometimes they just paddle lazily around, stabbing with their beaks. During breeding, the pouches of male and female brown pelicans turn bright red and their brown eyes turn blue. Adults are silent save for a breathing noise they make that sounds like “hah hah.”

Delistings of endangered species aren’t supposed to coincide with precipitous population declines. My hunt for answers led me to Anna Weinstein, who manages seabirds for Audubon California, and world-class birder Jennifer Rycenga. On a bright morning early last month, I met them near San Francisco on the Devil’s Slide Trail, opened to pedestrians and bicyclists only the week before.

The trail, on a 1.3-mile, landslide-prone stretch of Highway 1 and roughly a hundred yards above the blue expanse of Pacific, was recently bypassed by a twin-bore tunnel. It’s one of the best birding spots in the West, though only the most intrepid birders ventured there when they had to share the pavement with motor traffic. Behind us towered Montara Mountain, cloaked in green-gray coastal chaparral. On our right, as we sauntered north, shale and sandstone perched precariously on the granite that had thrust it out of the ancient seabed. No pelicans were showing. Nesting in Mexico had been late; on a normal year they would have been here by now.

But consolation prizes rained upon us. We hadn’t gone a hundred yards before Weinstein made statewide birding news by spotting two rock wrens acting like a mated pair. There hasn’t been a nesting record in the county for decades. A pair of peregrine falcons wheeled over Montara Mountain. Far below us bobbed rafts of pigeon guillemots, black scoters, surf scoters, western grebes, eared grebes, and buffleheads. Further out were common loons, Pacific loons, and red-throated loons. Black oyster catchers patrolled black rocks. Pelagic cormorants, double-crested cormorants, and Brandt’s cormorants stretched their wings and preened. A gray whale rolled and blew. A back-stroking sea lion waved a flipper. Harbor seals lolled in the sun. Common murres had been extirpated by gillnets and oil spills. But a coalition of environmental groups had brought them back by setting up decoys on two narrow rock outcroppings that jut from the surf. One of these, Devil's Slide Rock, held a colony that we estimated at 450.

Of course it was too much to expect pelicans, but suddenly they were there – possibly the first of the season, orbiting Devil's Slide Rock in stately flight, then perching among the murres. This year they didn’t even look at them. Their disinterest probably had to do with the fact they had glutted
This isn’t the first time Pacific sardines have been unavailable to coastal wildlife.
themselves on the anchovies that had recently moved into the Channel Islands and Monterey Bay.

In mid-February, Harvey estimated 2,500 pelican nests on Anacapa, but during the first week in April she found high nest abandonment and fairly low chick survival. The situation was even grimmer when she returned in late April. Anchovies have obviously provided some relief, but it is clear they aren’t going to take the place of the far more nutritious sardines. At this writing, the 2014 nesting season is shaping up to be another disaster.

This isn’t the first time Pacific sardines have been unavailable to coastal wildlife. During the first half of the 20th century, the California sardine fleet took 70 percent or more of the mature fish. In his novel Cannery Row, John Steinbeck described the scene when the silver fish swirled in Monterey Bay like the Milky Way and overfishing seemed impossible: “In the morning when the sardine fleet has made a catch, the purse-seiners waddle heavily into the bay blowing their whistles. The deep-laden boats pull in against the coast where the canneries dip their tails into the bay…. Then cannery whistles scream and all over town men and women scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row to go to work.”

By the early 1950s it was over. The fleet pounded down a naturally declining sardine population to the point of extirpation. The boats, docks, and canneries vanished, leaving moldering body parts. Sardine recovery wouldn’t start for another 30 years. “Managers learned a lesson,” says Briana Brady, environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

No one I spoke with disagrees with her. But the conservation group Oceana and even some NOAA biologists believe there are more lessons that need learning. “The whole management regime is based on the assumption that in warmer temperatures you can fish sardines harder,” says Geoff Shester, Oceana’s California program director. “For some reason the temperature index they were using indicated a productive state during the precipitous decline since 2007. So the fishery kept harvesting at the highest level.”

As a safety measure the council subtracts a certain amount from the estimated biomass of mature sardines, then figures out the catch limit based on the remainder – as if that were the total population. What it subtracts is called the “cutoff.” The current cutoff is 150,000 tons. Oceana thinks it should be at least four times that.

“Even if we weren’t fishing, there would be booms and busts,” Shester says. “The fishery on sardines has little effect when the population is high. The
‘We need an ecological approach rather than a single-species one,’ says biologist Dan Anderson.
problem is that we didn’t stop fishing soon enough during the crash. The intense fishing since 2007 made what would have been a natural decline a severe collapse. At the peak of the Cannery Row boom in the 1930s, the sardine population was 8 to 10 million tons. This last peak (in 2007) only hit 1.4 million tons. Now we’re down to 300,000 or 400,000. Good management skims interest; but we’ve spent principle.”

Compounding the problem is that management of Pacific sardines is supposedly a cooperative three-nation effort. The U.S. is allotted 87 percent of the quota. But Mexico and Canada are taking three or four times what we expect they’re taking. When the stock is as depressed as it is now, Oceana wants the U.S. fishery closed.

Oceana’s notions about sardines aren’t considered wrong or even radical by two of the most eminent NOAA biologists who manage these fish – Juan Zwolinski and David Demer. In 2012 the National Academy of Sciences published their “whistle blower report,” as Shester calls it, in which they argued that all the mistakes that led to the Cannery Row collapse were being made again. They wrote that productivity appears dangerously low and that “a near-term recovery of this important stock is unlikely.”

The day I stopped in at the International Bird Rescue’s Center I met a pelican called “Red 30” because the band on his leg is red and marked with the number 30. A fish hook had damaged the joint of his left wing. As I eased toward him he side-stepped away – a good sign because, despite nine


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months in captivity, he hadn’t been habituated to humans. Red 30 had healed enough to fly, but he’d figured out he didn’t need to. He could just waddle over to the metal pan and scarf down as many fish as he wanted. So the center’s manager, Michelle Bellizzi, had been chasing him up into the high roosts. A month earlier she’d held little hope for him. Now she feels good about his chances.

What, I wondered, are the chances for Red 30’s kind along our Pacific Northwest coast?

Maybe sardines will recover under a new management philosophy. Dan Anderson, emeritus professor of wildlife biology at the University of California, Davis, thinks this will happen. “We need an ecological approach rather than a single-species one,” he told me. “I think the fisheries managers are coming around to this.”

If they don’t come around, and if pelican starvation and nesting failures continue to be the norm, the Fish and Wildlife Service may be forced to relist the California brown pelican as endangered. Such an outcome would almost certainly be seized by the enemies of the Endangered Species Act as more evidence that it needs emasculating surgery.

Correction, May 14, 2014: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had hired Laurie Harvey to monitor pelican nesting.

POSTED ON 12 May 2014 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Science & Technology Asia North America 


If anyone would like more information on the management and natural history of California brown pelicans, see Judy Irving’s new film “Pelican Dreams.” I had the pleasure of watching some of it in April. Great stuff!

Kickstarter campaign and trailer: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/pelicandreams/pelican-dreams/
Fall premiere: www.pelicanmedia.org

Posted by Ted Williams on 13 May 2014

A few years ago, I made a film that you might have seen called "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill." When I started “Pelican Dreams," my intention was to make a documentary about my all-time favorite bird, who I thought was in fine fettle out in the wild, having been taken off the Endangered Species List in 2009. But it isn’t that simple. Pelicans face daunting 21st century survival challenges, as we all do, and my film shows them, as well as showing how endearing, graceful, clumsy, and resilient these ancient birds really are. Please help us finish “Pelican Dreams” by contributing to our nonprofit campaign:

Posted by Judy Irving on 13 May 2014

Might we consider the repercussions of the nuclear holocaust at Fukushima being felt by all marine life on the West Coast?
Posted by Peter Tischler on 15 May 2014

I was researching on brown pelicans if they are an endangered species or not. I was surprised on what I found. I was looking this information up for my marine biology class. I find this website very helpful for my research and I plan on majoring in marine biology in college. So on that note thanks.
Posted by briana on 16 May 2014

The recent crash in pelican nesting numbers is very worrisome, and as Ted Williams points out, the primary culprit is a sharp decline in the sardine populations they prey on. Sardine numbers and distribution change dramatically with relative ocean temperature and the California Current has entered into a cold cycle. Federal fisheries managers should have reduced fishing pressure in response to natural cyclical declines, but did not, thus have greatly exacerbated the problem. The 2012 Zwolinski and Demer paper Williams links to shows how this will dramatically slow the population's natural recovery rate as California Current warms again in the future.

To correct the imbalance, Zwolinski and Demer, conservation groups and fisheries managers rightfully are focusing most of their efforts on the federal laws governing Pacific Coast fisheries, especially the Magnuson Act. The Endangered Species Act which does not regulate sardine fishing.

The California brown pelican increased dramatically in number while protected under the ESA, then declined sharply AFTER ESA protection ended. It's hard to conceive how Williams can interpret this as evidence of the "failure" of the Endangered Species Act. If anything it indicates the success of the Act with the species' status rising and falling with the level of ESA protection.

All would agree that simultaneous, multi-species management is critical to successful wildlife conservation. As a practical matter, this means we need simultaneous, MULTI-LAW implementation. The Endangered Species Act was not designed to solve all environmental problems. It is one node in network of state and federal wildlife laws. Expecting it to do everything is the parallel to thinking single-species management is the solution.

In the case of the pelican, the Endangered Species Act has been critical, but we also have to expect the Pacific Fishery Management Council to protect sardines as required by the Magnuson Act, the EPA to eliminate toxins as required by a host of federal laws, and the National Park Service to protect nesting sites under the MBTA and its organic act. Expecting the ESA to do all this by itself won't work, and to the extent it is tried, will place enormous political pressure on it. Indeed, much of the pressure on the ESA in the past 25 years is related to its very public entrance as a backstop after state and federal agencies quietly failed to implement a host of other laws should have been working concurrently.

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Audubon Society are working together to get the Fish and Wildlife Service to complete it five-year monitoring program as required under the ESA. See http://ca.audubon.org/sites/default/files/documents/audubon.cbd_.brown_pelican.9.17.2013.pdf to find out more. But we're also pushing the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Pacific Fishery Management Council obey the Magnuson Act's requirement to ensure commercial fisheries don't collapse sardine numbers. In then next decade, the latter will be the most important work.

Kieran Suckling
Executive Director
Center for Biological Diversity
Posted by Kieran Suckling on 16 May 2014

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has allocated $60,000 for brown pelican monitoring in 2014. That will be enough to cover all the nesting areas in California and transitory zones in Oregon and Washington.

This will help, but as others have noted, the real action is with the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the Magnuson Act. Without proper, legal, science-based sardine management, pelicans and other species will remain at risk regardless of how many nest counts there are.

Rather than framing the crisis as a test of a law which is only marginally relevant, we (and the pelicans and sardines) would better off applying pressure and making it a test case of the Pacific Fishery Management Council's decision-making. I suspect the Council, which has a history of poor fisheries management and prefers to stay under the radar, would be more than happy for the public to instead focus on the Fish and Wildlife Service even though they have no jurisdiction over the fisheries.
Posted by Tim Rather on 19 May 2014

Hi Tim:
You really got my hopes up with your report of the $60,000 allocation for brown pelican monitoring for 2014. But I just made a call to the service’s Ventura field office. Alas, there has been no such allocation or any allocation. Meanwhile, I’m happy to report that a very respected seabird biologist, Laurie Harvey, will be monitoring pelicans for the 2014 season. Funding will not come from the Fish and Wildlife Service, though this may change. It will come instead from money donated by Audubon California and granted by the French Foundation (a private charitable group focused primarily, not exclusively, on fish and wildlife). Re. your take on the failings of Pacific Fishery Management Council, I guess everything is relative. When I compare its work with that of the councils I deal with--the New England Fishery Management Council and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council--fish care on the Pacific side starts looking pretty good. I certainly agree about the need for a strong Magnuson Act. I pray it survives the ongoing effort to emasculate it.

Posted by Ted Williams on 20 May 2014

The USFWS announced its $60,000 2014 allocation to pelican researchers on May 16, 2014.

The various fishery councils certainly have different concepts of acceptable risk, but from the sardine and pelican perspective, there's little to celebrate in relative positioning. The species will recover or decline based on the actual decisions of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, not its relative progressiveness.

The broader issue is where to focus limited conservation funds and time. Sardine management is regulated by the Pacific Fishery Management Council via the Magnuson Act. It is not regulated by the Fish and Wildlife Service or the Endangered Species Act. The Fish and Wildlife Service absolutely needs to obey the ESA and monitor pelicans now that they are no longer protected, just as Channel Islands National Park needs to protect nesting areas (which they do a good job of), but the only agency with power to improve sardine (and so pelican) populations is the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the only law governing them is the Magnuson Act. Thus conservationists need to keep the primary focus and pressure on the Council, not the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Posted by Tim Rather on 21 May 2014

Hi again Tim:
Not sure what kind of research this allocation you speak of was for or where it is headed, but it’s clearly not for monitoring California brown pelicans. On May 20, four days after the date you say this allocation was announced, the Fish and Wildlife Service person in charge of brown pelican research in California, Jeff Phillips, told me that zero funds had been allocated for monitoring California pelicans. I can't think that he has been kept in the dark. I don’t disagree with you that we should pressure the council to better manage sardines. That was one of my major points in the piece. In addition, as you correctly note, the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to be held accountable for directly violating the Endangered Species Act.

Posted by Ted Williams on 21 May 2014

Please do a search for whooping cranes and wind turbines.

The 'Green Economy' is neither.

Posted by Tom Andersen on 30 May 2014

Today is July 13th, 2015 — I am a great admirer of the brown pelican. I drive out to Cape Disappointment in Washington usually April thru Sept every other weekend. I have seen very few of these magnificent birds, lots of wind 15-20+ knots. Only one of the late June weekends did I see a group of seventy feeding east off of East Sand Island and later that day a group of thirty feeding directly off the Cape. I drive over the bridge, and look off of Chinook, have seen low single digits. I have been told by WA Audobon the Corp of Engineers have been reducing/killing the black Cormorant population on East Sand Island at night. East Sand Island shared by the brown pelicans and was the largest BP population on the West Coast. The red tide, the loss of sardines, the corp of engineers' work — I feel unsure they even arrived to WA. Or did they sense the black cormorant deaths and abandon their East Sand Island? Anyone? Home? To go where? The Columbia is where food is.

Posted by Anna on 12 Jul 2015


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ted williamsABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ted Williams, an avid hunter and angler, writes strictly about fish and wildlife conservation. He is a longtime contributor to Audubon magazine, where he writes the award-winning Incite column, and is conservation editor for Fly Rod & Reel magazine. Previously for Yale Environment 360, he reported on how lead bullets were posing a new threat to the California condor and explored whether wolves should remain protected under the Endangered Species Act.



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