Six Degrees of Sardines, a Brown Pelican Story


Six Degrees of Sardines, a Brown Pelican Story

Picture the Dawn dish soap commercials where people are cleaning birds affected by oil spills.  That’s the The International Bird Rescue (IBR).  With two wildlife centers in California they care for “more than 5,000 animals each year, including Pelicans, Herons, shorebirds, and other aquatic species.” (1)  During a recent visit to the Malibu Lagoon, some casual bird and beach photographs proved to be rather significant when the use of my 150-600mm telephoto lens made obvious a blue band around one particular Brown Pelican’s ankle.  As a nature enthusiast, I knew this Pelican had been rescued, rehabilitated, and released at some point in the past by  IBR.  “The Brown Pelican represents a species of special interest” to IBR due to many threats these birds face including, oil spills, marine debris entanglements, and food shortages. (2)  As an additional tracking method to the standard rescued bird banding (USGS Federal Bird Banding Program), IBR established the Blue-Banded Brown Pelican Program in 2009.

Like “C83” above, a sighting of any banded bird can be reported through the IBR.  The blue-banded program helps track the bird’s migration patterns, plumage/molt, well-being post release, life span, and band integrity.  I reported my sighting and included three photos.  As a bonus, IBR will email you the case history of the Pelican.  More on that later.

Why Does This Matter?

The Brown Pelican is a reminder of the importance of federal acts such as the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, and the necessity of the EPA.  In addition, during this anti-regulation administration, it’s a reminder to stand-up as environmental stewards to fulfill our responsibility to this planet.  Brown Pelicans were on the verge of extinction twice in the past 125 years.  With few natural predators, humans have, and I argue still do, pose the greatest threat to this bird.

Plume Hunters

Hunted for their feathers and targeted for their eggs, in 1903 President Teddy Roosevelt designated Florida’s Pelican Island as the first national wildlife refuge in an attempt to reduce the threat Brown Pelican’s faced at that time. (3)  Plume hunting threatened many species of birds in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prompting the founding of organizations such as the National Audubon Society.  Birds were given further protections with the 1918 passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act making it “illegal for anyone to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to Federal regulations.” (4)


Flash forward to the 1950s and 1960s, like our national bird, the Bald Eagle, Brown Pelicans were on the verge of extinction again because of DDT pesticide use.  DDT made its way up the food chain to the Brown Pelican in turn changing the birds physiology and altering their egg strength.  Brown Pelicans actually stand on their eggs during incubation and the decreased egg shell strength could not withstand this pressure.  “In 1970, under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Brown Pelican as endangered… In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT in the United States and restricted the use of other pesticides.” (5)

2009 Delisting

The species was fully delisted in 2009, but is still directly protected through the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.   In addition to these laws there are other regulations that indirectly protect the Brown Pelican by protecting it’s habitat such as the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act of 1996 (FIFRA). According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a 2008 article Brown Pelican Proposed Delisting Questions and Answers, “the Service believes that these protections, taken together, provide adequate regulatory mechanisms to prevent the Brown Pelican from becoming threatened or endangered throughout all or a significant portion of its range in the foreseeable future.” (6)

Current Threats & Conclusion

Have these protections/mechanisms truly been enough? Water and pesticide regulations are necessary and must be upheld, but when you consider the recent decline of the pacific anchovy and sardine, key forage species of the Brown Pelican, it reminds us that everything in nature is connected.  In a 2012 National Academy of Sciences article, two federal fisheries biologists warned “All indicators show that the northern sardine stock off the west coast of North America is declining steeply again and that imminent collapse is likely.” (7)  Many attribute the shortages to a lingering “warm blob” of ocean water, a natural ebb & flow of the sardine population, and over fishing. (8)  With a dwindling food supply, Pelicans search farther for food and often abandon their nests while doing so.  Other species who depend on the Sardine population such as Sea Lions, were commonly in the news in 2013-2014 as their starving pups were found abandoned.

Ocean conservation group, Oceana, successfully urged the Pacific Fisheries Council to halt commercial Sardine fishing for the 2015-2016 year and it still remains closed.  As for Anchovies, the outlook is not as good.  In October 2016, the National Marine Fisheries Service, which establishes annual fish catch limits, set the annual Anchovy catch limit above the estimate of the entire Anchovy population.  According to Geoff Shester, California Campaign Director for Oceana. “This decision by federal fishery managers will jeopardize the potential recovery of the fishery in the future and leave already food starved dependent predators without enough to eat.” (9)
Sustainable fishing practices are only one element in the delicate balance of our ecosystem.  In this time of unprecedented climate change with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and rising ocean temperatures, environmental regulations and sustainability are critical to maintain this big picture balance.  As responsible citizens to this planet, we must also do our part while demanding our government maintain strong environmental regulations and be a standard-bearer.  One planet, one people – we’re all connected.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” – John Muir

 Case History of C83

  • Adult female rescued in January 2010 from Santa Barbara
  • Stabilized at the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network until transfer to IBR’s LA Wildlife Center in San Pedro, CA on 01/12/2010 to continue care
  • Treated for a chest wound consistent with a California Sea Lion bite
  • Released on 01/29/2010 at White Point Beach, San Pedro, CA
  • Sightings: 7/31/2013 at Pismo Beach, CA; 7/23/2016 in Alameda, CA; 7/24/2016, 7/27/2016, 7/30/2016, 8/20/2016 at Pillar Point, CA; 2/16/2017 at Malibu, CA