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    Fish remains imperil pelicans, experts say

    Environmentalists at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary say they rescue about six birds a month with fish remains lodged in their throats.

    By LEON M. TUCKER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- The fleet of chartered fishing boats that spend hours yanking cobia, grouper and amberjack from the Gulf of Mexico usually returns to Clearwater Marina with company waiting.

    By the time the boats are tied off and the fish are dragged out of coolers for cleaning, flocks of pelicans have taken their position.

    Some huddle together in the water next to boats while others perch atop poles and railings waiting for their share.

    But some environmentalists are concerned that anglers are pitching fish parts containing bones to the endangered birds, causing them to choke and sometimes die.

    "Fish bones have always been a big problem -- more so in the winter time than the summer -- because that is when the pelicans are usually more hungry and the supply in fish bait is scarce," said Ralph Heath, founder and director of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. "That's when they hang out on the fishing piers and boat docks and beg for fish."

    During any given month, sanctuary volunteers rescue up to six pelicans that have fish remains lodged in their throats. But for the commercial fishermen who run fishing tours out of Clearwater Marina, the threat of choking pelicans isn't much of a problem.

    "These birds have been eating scraps here for years," said John Cole, captain of the Lucky Day fishing charter. "Though I've heard that some of the fish they eat can hurt them, I haven't seen it."

    Tom Stacey, a deck hand on the Flo-Jo and Fanta-Sea charter boats, said he and his crew filet their catches and then throw the remaining carcasses in the trash. They do not feed the birds.

    "Every once in a while (a pelican) will sneak off with one," he said. "But there's not much we can do about that."

    Over the years, city marine specialists have warned anglers about the hazards of feeding the birds scraps.

    In April, Bill Morris, director of the city's Marine and Aviation Department, circulated a memo to marina tenants, reminding them that anyone caught harming the pelicans, which are protected by federal law, could be reported to the state.

    "It's not our intent to use the regulation to beat people over the head with it," Morris said. "But we take great lengths to mitigate the problems we could have."

    The memo suggests that anglers bag the skeletal remains and allow the birds to eat only the fish skins. But some captains say the real problem isn't bones, but with pelicans getting caught in the ropes fishermen use to hang their fish.

    The birds will sometimes see what they think is a free meal and try gobbling the fish, rope and all.

    "We're always chasing down pelicans and taking stuff out of their mouth," Stacey said.

    Meanwhile, environmentalists offer another solution: install PVC pipes at fish cleaning stations that run into the water. That way, fishermen could sink the remains to the bottom of the marina.

    But Morris and others are cautious of the idea.

    "I'm not so sure that would work," Cole said. "It seems like something that could get clogged up and you would have to be fidgeting with it all the time."

    Because the water is only 1 1/2 feet deep at high tide, the fish remains would not sink very far, which would provide easy access for the birds, Morris said.

    "In the future it would be a great option," he said. "But because we have to dredge the slips we'd make the problem worse if we put these PVC pipes in now."

    It would likely be six months to a year before the marina is dredged, Morris said.

    But in the meantime, the best advice Heath says he can give is this:

    "Don't give the birds huge grouper and snapper carcasses that they can't digest," he said. "I hate to see anything go to waste, but just don't let it become a choking situation."

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