As most of you know, rehabilitation is volunteer work. The majority of people who do this are working other paid jobs or sometimes retired. And for some of us, our paid work still allows us to work with animals or nature. For me, I am a deckhand on local tour boats for dolphin and whale watching. This means, I also get to enjoy seeing birds every day and if you know me, you know birds are really my thing. It also means, I get an up close and personal view of birds that sometimes need to come into care, but aren’t quite down enough to be caught. This may include thin, frost bitten pelicans, lonely razorbills who didn’t migrate with the rest of the edge (yes, that is their collective noun!), or other birds that have an issue which doesn’t allow them to survive and thrive the way they should. This is sometimes heartbreaking to witness. We want to help all of the animals, but that grey area when they need help but aren’t weak enough to be caught is incredibly frustrating. Not that we ever want the animals to be weak or struggling, but the earlier they can come into care when it is necessary, the better.
So that was a lot of verbal setup to bring me to what I witnessed the other day while our boat was headed out. In Rudee Inlet, the birds were flying all around. Gulls, pelicans, and cormorants were diving into the water for their food. There was a lot of noise and activity, which is always enjoyable. One of my coworkers is also a birder, so we really like pointing out lifers to each other such as the Northern harrier for me and the Boat-tailed grackle for him. But I digress. This particular day, a pelican flew overhead that caught my eye. Dangling from its legs was fishing line and a weight.
I absolutely have nothing against responsible fishing. I also love eating sustainable seafood. And I totally understand that accidents happen and sometimes your line gets caught in shoreline brush or trees or that large fish snaps it while getting away. However, this pelican flying with the dangling weight had me seeing red. Why you ask? Because this is WAY TOO COMMON. By far, this is not the first bird that has become entangled in fishing line and it will not be the last. Do I have any way to know if this particular one was completely accidental or irresponsible and preventable? No.
But working with all of the people who spend time rescuing tangled birds, I have to believe that the majority of it is preventable. I can’t tell you the number of calls and photos we get of herons and egrets with line wrapped around their bills, slowly starving them. Our rescuers have gone out on calls to catch a tangled bird, only to find a dead one hanging in a tree next to a no fishing sign. That is absolutely preventable. No fishing means no fishing. Period. Also, if you can have your boat close enough that your line gets tangled in the tree when you cast, you can likely get close enough to retrieve the snapped line. And while sometimes a surprisingly large fish that you can’t land may snap your line, as often as possible, use line with the appropriate test strength for the fish you are expecting to catch.
All of that discarded and broken gear doesn’t go away. It doesn’t disintegrate or break down. It gets eaten, tangled, or embedded in wildlife. Sometimes it ends up in nests. Let the folks who band baby osprey for OspreyWatch tell you their stories of tangled nestlings that are too far gone to be saved, where euthanasia is the most humane option. Lisa recently took in a pelican for being thin and cold stunned, only to find a hook that had been in its wing so long, it was only noticeable upon full physical examination and pat down. Thankfully, that pelican is recovering and other than some likely initial pain, didn’t have long lasting impacts from the hook. Every wildlife rescuer has seen the photos of the tangled birds. Some recover. Some don’t. Some are dead before we get to them. And some, like this pelican that flew by me, will go a little longer with this extra weight on him. Maybe it will fall off or he will be able to preen or pull it off. Maybe he will lose his leg from the line cutting into him. Maybe the worst will happen. It’s pretty likely we will never know his outcome.
If you enjoy fishing, please keep fishing responsibly. But just like those Mylar balloons, remember that your fishing gear doesn’t disappear. It has to go somewhere when it’s out there. Maybe it just stays tangled on the bridge or tree. But maybe it ends up in an animal’s stomach. Or wrapped around them. Why chance it? Even if you don’t care about the birds (which, tbh, you probably do if you are reading this), do you want to eat a fish that has swallowed someone else’s lead weight? And don’t even get me started on dolphins that get tangled in discarded gear and drown.
So what can you do to help? I don’t like being all doom and gloom. If you are already the responsible fisher, continue doing that. If you are in a smaller boat near a shoreline and see someone else’s tangled or discarded gear and can reach it, cut it down. Dispose of fishing gear properly. Learn and teach about the effects on nature. Locally, the Virginia Aquarium, as well as the Monterey Aquarium in California have some wonderful resources online about sustainable seafood and good practices. If you see an animal in need of help, contact us or your local wildlife rehabber. If it is a marine mammal or sea turtle (because they also get affected by fishing gear), contact the local stranding center. Yes, accidents can still happen. But when you know better, do better. The birds, and fish, and turtles, and dolphins, and all of the rehabbers and rescuers thank you for it.