California Seabirds: Give Them a Break, Not a Line

By Nora Rojek

snowy egret

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 site disturbances.

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 seabirds.

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 free meals.

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 from predators.

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.

Roosting disturbances

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.

Further information: