The Pelican Mystery

Sick brown pelicans at local rescue center

The International Bird Rescue Center has been overrun by starving pelicans this winter. Speculation about what’s sickening birds from Southern California to Oregon has ranged from El Nino conditions to climate change to polluted runoff.

The bottom line is that hundreds of Brown Pelicans have ended up sick and malnourished. Many birds stayed too long in the frigid coastal waters off Oregon and Northern California in search of fish prey that just weren’t present in high densities. By migrating late, many pelicans were buffeted by major storms and they didn’t build up the fat reserves to withstand the inclement weather.

Cal Fish and Game on Monday pegged the die off and strandings on starvation. But bird rescue volunteers and scientists have brought up the issue of polluted runoff, which can damage feathers and lead to hypothermia in the recently endangered birds.

David Weeshhoff, a Heal the Bay and International Bird Rescue Center super volunteer, recently told me that the pollution problem impacting the pelicans has been seen at rescue centers in both Southern and Northern California.

I can’t recall polluted runoff being discussed as a possible cause of a large- scale, regional ecological catastrophe before. Progress on reducing stormwater runoff pollutant loads and concentrations has been lacking over the 20 years that the EPA and California have regulated the critical pollution source.

Scientists need to take a closer look at the role that stormwater runoff had on Brown Pelican populations.

As if the impacts of runoff on public health and aquatic toxicity on a local level aren’t enough, oil and other substances in stormwater runoff may be causing larger-scale ecological impacts. We already know that marine debris from polluted runoff is causing detrimental impacts throughout the northern Pacific. With this latest twist, stronger regulatory efforts targeting stormwater pollution prevention are even more imperative than previously thought.

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