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Captain’s Log: Brown Pelican Takes Flight from Endangered List

With the region's population stabilized and the lanky big birds again gracing the shoreline, the state declares a measured victory.

Bentwing, an ubiquitous presence at the Santa Barbara Harbor, and his fellow California brown pelicans have been delisted as endangered species. Bentwing is the hero of a series of children’s books written by Noozhawk columnist Capt. David Bacon. The books are being illustrated and will hopefully be published soon.
Bentwing, an ubiquitous presence at the Santa Barbara Harbor, and his fellow California brown pelicans have been delisted as endangered species. Bentwing is the hero of a series of children’s books written by Noozhawk columnist Capt. David Bacon. The books are being illustrated and will hopefully be published soon. (Ramona Lisa McFadyen photo)

Chalk up another success for wildlife managers and researchers. At its Feb. 5 meeting, the California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously to remove the California brown pelican from the state endangered species list. This is the first time the commission has ever voted to delist an endangered species as a result of its recovery.

Capt. David Bacon (Ramona Lisa McFadyen photo)
We worried a bit this winter when a number of dead and weakened California brown pelicans were found locally, but the pervasive philosophy was that sudden and bitter-cold weather in the Pacific Northwest drove those birds further south and faster than they had the stored energy for. Now the local population seems to have stabilized.

Overall, the sheer number of these birds is remarkable. Having plied these waters for decades, I feel that we are happily up to our armpits in the quiet and graceful (in the air anyway) big birds. While steaming out of the harbor in the morning, we often see hundreds of pelicans on the sandspit at the harbor entrance or on West Beach near the rock groin. At times, the bait receiver is bristling with birds, making for a very yucky daily cleanup task for the bait receiver attendant.

“Every Californian should be proud of this landmark decision,” said (California Fish & Game) Commission president Cindy Gustafson. “The California Endangered Species Act is both loved and hated as we struggle to balance human impacts on our native species’ needs.

“This is a story of magnificent success. In the 38-year history of our protection of endangered species under the act, the California brown pelican is the first species to fully recover. We hope to have many more.”

The decision was based on a recommendation by state Department of Fish and Game biologists contained in a report called a status review. The delisting recommendation relied on studies showing an increased breeding population on west Anacapa Island in the Channel Islands, expansion of breeding pairs on Santa Barbara Island, increased productivity and fledgling numbers, and the fact that nesting sites are under generally protective National Park Service ownership or management.

The commission’s decision to delist the brown pelican will now be reviewed by the state Office of Administrative Law before the large seabird can be officially removed from the Endangered Species list. The California brown pelican is designated as a fully protected species under the Fish and Game Code, and that will not change as a result of the delisting. It is still illegal to kill or harm a brown pelican in California. Their future looks bright and we have much to be proud of.

The history of the big bird was described in a California Fish & Game News article. The decline of the California brown pelican and other species due to the effects of the persistent pesticide DDT was one of the major events that helped to develop public concern for the environment and related laws in California in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.   

Contamination by the pesticide DDT resulted in thin eggshells that broke under the pressure of incubating adult pelicans. The pesticide was determined to be the primary cause of reproductive failures and population declines in Southern California and coastal Baja California, and was banned in the United States in 1972. Human disturbance of breeding colonies and roosts also contributed to population declines and poor reproduction. Oil spills and entanglement in fishing tackle are other known threats to pelicans.

Recovery efforts in the last three decades have resulted in the seabird again becoming a common resident of the West Coast, after being reduced to small numbers from the 1960s to ‘80s. There are now an estimated 8,500 breeding pairs in the Channel Islands, the only area in California where brown pelicans nest.

Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a new nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need.

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