The federal Department of Interior has just delisted the Brown Pelican from the endangered species list. I agree with the move, which occurred about eight months after the State Department of Fish and Game delisted the California Brown Pelican. It is just tragic that it took over 35 years since the DDT and PCB ban to finally achieve this milestone. The legacy of our society’s addiction to easy-to-use pesticides and herbicides is brilliantly documented in Rachel Carson’s classic 1962 book “Silent Spring.” The impacts of DDT and PCBs on eggshell thinning in predatory birds nearly led to the extinction of the Brown Pelican, Peregrine Falcon and Bald Eagle. All of the species have recovered substantially in the decades following the chemical bans, but the organochlorines still pose a substantial ecological and health risk. These toxins easily biomagnify up the food web and have very slow degradation rates in the marine environment.
The legacy of DDT and PCBs is still seen locally. Some species of fish caught between Santa Monica Pier and Seal Beach Pier should not be consumed at all by people (white croaker, barred sand bass and topsmelt). And numerous other species should only be consumed once a week. Also, the recovery of the Bald Eagle on the Channel Islands (especially Catalina) has been slower than the recovery of the California Brown Pelican.
We’ve all seen the bumper sticker that reads “Extinction is Forever.” Despite the good news on the delisting of the Brown Pelican, its rehabilitation definitely tells us that the timeframe from endangered to recovery could be a lifetime.
The story of the Brown Pelican teaches us that mistakes made in the name of progress and commerce can have devastating ecological and human health effects. Chemical bans may result in species recovery and reduced health risks, but they surely are not as effective as adequate testing before toxic chemicals are ever allowed to market.
With tens of thousands of toxic chemicals in use around the world and thousands more new chemicals coming to market annually, it’s vital to continue to support Green Chemistry, strengthening the federal Toxic Substances Control Act and Precautionary Principle efforts.