Photo taken at a 2012 release by Bird Ally X of a brown pelican that had been covered in fish oil. Photo provided by Bird Ally X from their Facebook page.

Pelicans covered in fish oil would seem to be in hog heaven but, instead, they could be close to death. Last year, Bird Ally X treated more than 250 birds which were covered in “fish slime.”  The “slime,” according to Monte Merrick, co-director of Bird Ally X and the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center, comes from waste from the fishing industry. 

The birds get covered in the waste as they pick for scraps of food left by fishermen.  The fish waste, especially fish oil, coats their feathers and compromises their ability to stay warm.

Merrick says that many of the birds treated were California brown pelicans. These pelicans have a normal body temperature of 103 to 106 degrees. The Pacific Ocean near the California North Coast averages around 52 degrees. Merrick explained that the birds’ feathers “…are their dry suit.  If [the suit] gets wet or has a hole, it pretty much spells disaster.  On a warm sunny day, [the birds] can get out and get dry.  But once a pelican’s waterproofing is compromised,  it is just a mater of time until they have a bad day.” 

“There are more pelicans than there used to be thanks to the recovery,” explained Merrick.  He said that there had been only a few thousand breeding pairs of the California brown pelican in 1971 in this state when they were first listed as endangered but by the time they were delisted in 2009, there were closer to 100,000 pair.

“There are a lot of pelicans now,” he acknowledged, “but…before 1850, there were probably a million breeding pair… .”

These birds, he says, learn to dive in any place where the ocean is calm but “all of those places have become more and more humanized—industrialized—in the last 100 years.”

Young pelicans are hatching right now in the Channel Islands and Baja. Soon they’ll be migrating north along the coast and Merrick is worried. “There are fish cleaning stations all along the coast—every place there is a fishing industry even a sport fishing industry.”  The young birds, he says, are especially vulnerable to getting covered in the slime left at these stations.  The inexperienced birds are no longer being fed by their parents and are supposed to “switch to plunge diving for their own food which takes practice.” Instead, some of them learn to linger around the fish cleaning stations looking for easy to find scraps of food. There, they get covered by the slime and can die.

The mortality for the young pelicans is high. “Half of all pelicans die in their first year,” explains Merrick but pelicans can live a long time.  Some have been known to live over 40 years. But, with the fish waste problem, the brown pelicans and other birds are encountering problems up the coastline.

“Here in Eureka, we have a seafood plant right on the waterfront.”  Pelicans go there and eat the waste. They risk getting covered in the fish slime and, according to Merrick, “the lifestyle leads to disease.” 

However, Bird Ally X has been successful in saving many of the contaminated creatures. Merrick says, “Rescue has a really high rate of success.”  Nonetheless, it would be better if the birds weren’t contaminated in the first place.

“A lot of the hazards are individually based,” explained Merrick. “Individuals can solve it.  Last year we had a spectacular salmon season.  [Fishermen] tossed the carcasses to the pelicans. They can’t eat it. Their throat isn’t built that way….Their bill and neck has not changed in 30 million years. [They’re supposed to eat] anchovies and sardines.  They might try new things but that really isn’t going to work out for them.  They need to do old things.”

People who fish, he suggests, could help by bringing the carcasses home to their gardens or using covered dumpsters. “Honoring that fish by turning it into tomatoes is the best choice,” he says.

Individual fishermen are not the biggest problem though.  The fish cleaning stations in the harbors cause the most problems. In Crescent City, according to Merrick, there used to be a “rudimentary trough sink with a couple of dumpsters.  Bird Ally X were called in frequently to deal with oil covered birds. “We put lids on the dumpsters which was pretty effective.”  But the group still had to step in to help.  “We rescued in the neighborhood of 60 to 80 pelicans.” This year though, Merrick says, “the harbor there applied for a grant to build a pelican friendly fish cleaning station.” Merrick is hopeful that this will continue to help the birds stay oil free.

Merrick says that a pelican friendly fish cleaning station “keeps the pelicans away from the action…It has to be enclosed so that you’re not cleaning your fish with the birds hanging around you.”  In addition, a lot of the fish waste is ground up and piped back into the water.  Pelicans and other birds congregate there for the easy pickings and get contaminated.  Merrick believes that the “waste stream must be treated as sewage—not spewed back into the bay.”

Beyond that, he’d like to see the fish waste be composted. “We’ve been doing it now for over a year [at Bird Ally X] and it’s been successful…Fish waste should be composted at marinas.  Harbor districts should make themselves a model and use it as a promotion of their industry.”

Even further, Merrick says, “Bird Ally X would like to build bridges to entrepreneurs.  We’d like to connect the entrepreneurs with soil amendment companies with this resource that is being untapped.”  The fish waste that is being dumped into the water could be used to make soil amendments, he says. 

Merrick says, In 2012, “We treated 260 birds.  We had to build an entire infrastructure to treat those birds.  We didn’t have any funding.  With an oil spill, the company responsible would have to pay.”  But instead, his group had to fund raise to clean and feed the contaminated birds.

Merrick says that his group could possibly sue harbors that aren’t fixing the problem but that could take years for results and “… what we really need is for pelicans not to get killed this year.”