Brown Pelicans: A Test Case for The U.S. 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.

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 failures and starved to death by the thousands because Pacific sardines, their most important food, have disappeared.

Brown pelican in flight
A sharp decline in sardines has jeopardized the California brown pelican’s recovery. USFWS

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, California’s fishing-tackle casualties tend to be inexperienced juveniles desperate for food.

Pelicans are one of many indicator species that fisheries managers ignore at the peril of marine ecosystems.

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 going on. We don’t know where the older fish come from. They just show up in the spring.”

During the U.S. sardine famine, production of California brown pelicans has been extremely low.

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 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.

Delistings of endangered species aren’t supposed to coincide with precipitous population declines.

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 themselves on the anchovies that had recently moved into the Channel Islands and Monterey Bay.

This isn’t the first time Pacific sardines have been unavailable to coastal wildlife.

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.

‘We need an ecological approach rather than a single-species one,’ says biologist Dan Anderson.

“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 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.”


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California condor
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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 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.