By Nora Rojek
On a typical visit to the beach,
Californians may have to guard
their picnic from gulls. While
casting a line off the local fishing pier,
anglers may see brown pelicans dive in
search of dinner. These birds are known as
seabirds - birds which spend the majority
of their life at sea - but Californians may
not know that many other seabird species
call California home, as well.
Twenty-nine species of seabirds breed in
California and nest primarily on offshore
rocks and islands along the entire coast.
Major areas for breeding include the
Farallon islands in central California, the
Channel Islands in Southern California, and
Castle Rock and other islands in northern
California. Some seabird species, such as
Cassin's auklet, are difficult to see because
they are active at their breeding colonies at
night and remain at sea when not breeding.
Many species, such as the California gull,
nest inland and visit coastal areas in winter.
Others species, such as sooty shearwaters,
migrate through, stopping only to feed.
California seabirds face a variety of
threats, including exotic predators, habitat
change, oil and chemical pollution, domoic
acid poisoning, changes in prey resources,
commercial and recreational fishing gear
interactions, and human disturbances of
roosting sites and breeding colonies. Many
would not think seabirds are in trouble,
especially when plenty of gulls appear at the
beach. But gulls are excellent scavengers that
take advantage of the
increasing amount of human
garbage. Although brown
pelican restoration has been
successful, many other
California breeding species
are declining. As California's
human population grows,
more people recreate in the
marine environment, and
this affects all of the wildlife
in the marine ecosystem.
Primary recreational impacts
on seabirds are through
fishing gear interactions and
breeding colony and roost
Fishing interaction problems
Most avid recreational anglers have at
some point interacted with seabirds.
Seabirds often eat the same fish being
targeted or may be attracted to bait at the
end of the line. As a result, birds become
accidentally hooked or entangled. Breaking
an entangled line does not resolve the
situation. The seabird may fly away, but the
story does not end there.
Both fish hooks and broken fishing lines
may injure and kill seabirds. Seabirds cannot
remove hooks or lines. Hooks which
penetrate the bird's hollow bones can lead
to infection. Broken lines can wrap around
birds' legs, wings, or beaks. The entangled
bird then starves because it cannot fly or
swim, or it cannot feed if the beak is trapped
in line. Trailing lines wrapped around legs or
other body parts can cut off blood
circulation or get entangled with structures.
Some seabirds, such as brown pelicans, use
their pouches to scoop up water to catch
fish. When a pelican's pouch is ripped by a
hook, it cannot feed properly and starves
because fish fall out through the hole.
While seabird entanglements can occur
during any type of recreational fishing
activity, the most severe problem has
occured at piers when large numbers of bait
fish concentrate, attracting both anglers and
In summer 2001, entanglement became a
big problem at the Santa Cruz City Pier.
Over two months, 162 brown pelicans with
hooks or entanglements were rescued and
47 of those died or were euthanized due to
injury severity. Many other injured birds
could not be rescued and died at sea or
washed up on beaches. In response, the City
of Santa Cruz and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) prohibited fishing on two thirds
of the city's pier for a few weeks.
Common murres and several species of
cormorants, gulls, and terns may also get
hooked or entangled. Many that do are
young birds. As inexperienced fishers, once
young birds find an easy food source such as
anchovies along the wharf, they become
vulnerable to getting entangled with an
angler's fishing line. Free handouts from pier
visitors encourage the birds to stay for more
Reducing seabird hookings
The best way for anglers to reduce
hookings and entanglements is to avoid
casting near large seabird concentrations.
If you are in a boat, move to another area.
Most piers are large enough for birds to
feed in one area, and anglers to fish in
another. Or take a break - flocks do not
usually remain in one area for long.
Using barbless hooks or artificial lures
whenever possible can also help. Weight
fishing lines to ensure the bait sinks
rapidly, before birds can dive for it. Don't
leave fishing lines unattended. Do not
feed birds or leave bait exposed because it
attracts birds. Take leftover bait home so
that birds don't get used to free meals,
and dispose of trash properly, including
fish remains and monofilament line. Fish
remains are a problem because most
seabirds swallow their prey whole.
Swallowing parts of fish with exposed
bones can cut a pelican's pouch.
Even with the best efforts, seabirds get hooked
If you do hook or entangle a seabird
and can reel it in and capture without
injury, carefully attempt to unhook or
disentangle the bird. If you are on a pier,
walk the line to a floating dock or to
shore, or use a hoop net under the bird
to lift it. Birds will defend themselves,
striking with their bills. Have assistance
in handling the bird. To protect yourself,
keep the bird away from your face,
control the bird's bill first, and use a
towel or shirt to cover the bird's head
(which also calms the bird). The wings
should be folded into their normal
position. While maintaining control of
the bird's head and body, remove all of
the line and cut off the barb. Don't pull
the hook directly out, this will cause
more injury. If a bird cannot be
captured, or if the hook cannot be
completely removed, cut the line as close
to the bird as possible. Call a local
wildlife care facility if the bird is
seriously injured or has multiple hooks.
Breeding colony disturbances
Boating activities also affect seabirds.
Boaters and kayakers may be tempted to
approach offshore rocks and islands. In
California, seabirds nest during the
spring and summer on these rocks and
islands, which offer some protection
It's fun to view wildlife in their
natural environment, and seabirds are
particularly appealing because many
nest together in large colonies. But, most
seabirds only come to land to nest and
raise their chicks, so it is a critical time. A
boat or kayak closely approaching a
group of nesting birds disturbs them,
causing them to fly away. Too much
disturbance can cause seabirds to
abandon nests. When birds abandon
their nests, their eggs and chicks become
vulnerable to predation. Some species,
such as common murres, lay their eggs
directly on rock ledges. When frightened,
they fly off in a panic and their eggs and
chicks can get bumped off cliffs.
Avoid disturbing nesting birds by not
boating at high speeds near colonies and
by maintaining distance (a minimum
100 yards). Alarmed birds appear agitated
and start flapping their wings, so move
back. Avoid landing on offshore rocks
during the seabird breeding season. Some
of California's important seabird colonies
are protected from landing or close
approaches. Check the regulations before
visiting any area.
During all times of the year, offshore
rocks and islands are important roosting
sites for brown pelicans and cormorants.
Unlike most seabirds, pelicans and
cormorants cannot completely
waterproof their feathers. They need to
regularly come ashore to dry off their
feathers and to rest. If these birds are
continually disturbed from
roosting areas into cold water,
they will actually become wet
and eventually hypothermic.
Sea cave nesting disturbance
Sea caves are also important
nesting habitat for more secretive
species like ashy storm-petrels
and Xantus's murrelets. In sea
caves, they nest on ledges, under
rocks and debris, and even on the ground
in dark corners, leaving their nests at
night. Entering these caves and making
loud noises or using flashlights can
cause these birds to abandon their nests.
To help protect them, avoid entering sea
caves during the spring and summer.
For more information on avoiding entanglements visit:
To contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility:
Everyone visiting the coast, whether
fishing or just enjoying the wildlife, can
help by not feeding birds, disposing of
garbage properly, and by picking up any
fish hooks or fishing lines left behind by
others. Report injured birds that can be
captured to local wildlife care facilities.
Remember, seabirds in California have
limited habitat for breeding and
roosting. You and the seabirds can both
enjoy the ocean at the same time with
just a little distance. By doing your part
you can help keep seabirds wild and a
part of the ocean environment for the
enjoyment of future generations.
Nora Rojek was an Environmental Scientist with CDFW's Marine Region. This article appeared in the November-December 2002 issue of Outdoor California.