Six Degrees of Sardine Separation, a Brown Pelican Story


Six Degrees of Sardine Separation, a Brown Pelican Story

Picture the Dawn Dish Soap commercials where people hand-clean birds affected by oil spills; those people work for 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 visit to the Malibu Lagoon in February, I had, what was in my mind, a celebrity sighting when I noticed a blue band around a Brown Pelican’s ankle reading “C83.”  Being familiar with IBR, I knew this Pelican had been rescued, rehabilitated, and released by this significant organization.  In fact, the Brown Pelican represents a species of special interest to IBR due to the many threats facing these birds, 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 story reminds us of the importance of the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and Clean Air Act and the necessity of the EPA.  During our new Trump Administration era of anti-regulation, 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 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)  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, and, like our national bird the Bald Eagle, Brown Pelicans were on the verge of extinction again – this time because of DDT pesticide use.  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 EPA banned the use of DDT in the United States and restricted the use of other pesticides. (5) 

2009 Delisting

Though the Brown Pelican was fully delisted from the Endangered Species List in 2009, it is still directly protected through the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  Additionally, there are other regulations that indirectly protect the Brown Pelican by protecting its habitat, such as the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act of 1996.  According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “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

Although it may seem like the Brown Pelican is doing well as a species, it is important that we evaluate the impacts that our actions and regulations (or lack thereof) have on its ecosystem.  When you consider the recent decline of the pacific anchovy and sardine – key forage species of the Brown Pelican – it is an important reminder that everything in nature is connected and that the Brown Pelican may not be as safe as we thought.  

In a 2012 National Academy of Sciences article, two federal fisheries biologists warned that “[a]ll 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)  Regardless of the cause, with a dwindling food supply, Pelicans have to search farther and farther for food and often abandon their nests while doing so.  Other species who similarly depend on the sardine population, such as sea lions, were commonly in the news in recent years when an alarming number of 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, however, the outlook is grim.  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, “[t]his 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 all do our parts while demanding that our government maintain strong environmental regulations.  We must be an example to the rest of the world.  Suggestions to get involved: Contact your local representatives regarding your concerns and/or pending legislation; Volunteer for environmental organizations that matter to you; Share your opinions with local business leaders, friends, and family.  

“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