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Clear Your Gear: Campaign to decrease hook-related injuries to pelicans

By Staff | Apr 21, 2014

The injured brown pelican rescued by Beverly McKee. BEVERLY MCKEE.

When Beverly McKee visited Sanibel Island in 2013 she had never expected to be part of a rescue operation for an injured brown pelican.

The breast cancer survivor, author, and licensed therapist came to the island to heal after nine months of chemotherapy, but discovered an injured pelican with monofilament fishing line wrapped around his legs. She had been taking a sunrise walk along Lighthouse Beach, taking pictures of gnarling driftwood, when the pelican hopped in her frame and seemed to be posing, but she sensed that something was wrong.

“He couldn’t fly. He was vulnerable and asking me for help in the only way he knew how,” said McKee in an article she sent to the Island Reporter. “My heart melted for this poor little guy.”

She set out making several phone calls to find someone on the island who could help the pelican, and a police officer and assistant finally arrived with a towel and pet crate.

“The pelican gazed right into my eyes, pleading for help. I promised that I wouldn’t leave him until he was safe,” said McKee.

An example of tangled monofilament lines and gear. TONI FERRELL.

McKee, the police officer, and an assistant had a difficult time capturing the pelican at first, until a jogger agreed to help form a circle around the sea bird, wrap it in a towel, and gently place it inside the crate.

“I told him goodbye as he looked at me through the door of the crate,” she said. “It was an exhilarating feeling to be a part of saving his life.”

Injured seabirds like McKee’s brown pelican have become a common sight in recent years as thousands of visitors converge on Sanibel Island or Fort Myers Beach to lounge in the sand, rent kayaks, or take that first fishing expedition, yet without a licensed captain or extensive fishing experience they don’t always know how to properly dispose of used fishing gear.

Dr. Heather Barron, hospital director at Sanibel Island’s Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW), reported a 25 percent increase in the number of wildlife patients with hook or line injuries in 2013 — a large portion of which were pelicans.

“Overall, there was an increase, but certainly in sea birds, and we saw the most dramatic increase in pelicans,” said Barron. “Most of them do survive.”

Many animals ingest hooks which cause internal problems. CROW.

She added that many of the surviving pelicans are displaying an unusual complication, seven to 10 days after receiving treatment, when the birds develop a septic infection in their joints.

“We do have a fairly good success rate, if people can get them into us right away,” she said.

The island clinic treats over 3,500 injured animals from Southwest Florida each year through partnerships with local veterinarians who act as drop-off and holding sites before animals are sent to the CROW facility. Only 15 percent of their patients come from Sanibel Island, said Barron, and most of the animals are saved.

Claudia Burns, an island resident and an environmental volunteer, said she started observing the effects of entanglement — on animals and also within the Mangrove ecosystem — a decade ago. As a result, Doris Hardy, current vice president of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society’s Board of Directors, organized volunteers to kayak through the refuge to remove improperly disposed gear and identify injured wildlife.

During their weekly clean-ups, typically on Fridays when the refuge was closed, they documented what they saw in photographs, and started developing the island’s “Clear Your Gear” campaign, a regional partnership between “Ding” Darling, CROW, the National Wildlife Refuge System, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Lures with multiple hooks get lodged in animal's mouths. CROW.

They created a vivid slide show presentation with pictures of all the injured wildlife they had come across, and stress the importance of prevention through proper disposal.

“We are trying to develop an educational program to let people know,” said Burns. “It’s basically ignorance, no one does it on purpose.”

Organizations on the local, state, national, and international level are also educating and working with the public on this issue. Students from Sanibel Sea School, for instance, installed monofilament disposal tubes near the causeway last summer, Keep Lee County Beautiful (klcb.org) hosts the Monofilament Madness, and local volunteers assist annually in the worldwide Ocean Conservancy’s Coastal Cleanup.

Burns said many visitors also throw filleted carcasses to pelicans without realizing that they encourage the birds to beg and may contain hooks that are accidentally ingested. Not only does she hope the campaign will decrease the amount of injures, but it may eventually lead to an advisory panel of experts to develop best practices for novice anglers.

After a similar campaign by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Naples City Council voted on April 2 to ban the use of lures with multiple hooks, which have been found stuck to animals near the pier. In Dec. 2013, the Conservancy reported a 1,700-percent increase in the amount of injured pelicans admitted to the Von Arx Wildlife Hospital in Naples.

Conservancy staff had installed signs at the pier, funded two part-time patrol officers, and initiated a public education campaign that resulted in the ban.

Barron said there is a lot of opportunity for agencies to work together to end unnecessary wildlife injuries.

“We have had a lot of people who have really helped us with this effort, certainly most of the bait, fish, and tackle shops on the island, and Ding Darling has been very supportive,” said Barron. “I think there is a lot of potential for collaboration and this is definitely a problem that all of us have to work together to solve.”