A survey recently conducted by experts suggests that for the fifth straight year, California Brown Pelicans are failing to breed successfully at the U.S. Channel Islands. This unprecedented multi-year breeding failure has alarmed pelican experts as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and highlights the importance of monitoring the status of seabirds in our rapidly changing ocean environment. (Photo by Ron LeValley)
California Brown Pelicans are the iconic seabird of the west coast. Each year, millions of residents and tourists in California enjoy the sight of stately groups of pelicans flying low over the water, wing tips touching the waves and plunge diving for fish. Once near extinction, this subspecies of Brown Pelican responded well to conservation efforts triggered by listing under the Endangered Species Act, namely, removing harmful chemicals from the environment and protecting breeding colonies in the U.S. and Mexico. As a result, California Brown Pelicans were triumphantly removed from the Endangered Species List in 2009. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is obligated to monitor delisted species for 10 years to ensure a continued positive trajectory, with no need to relist.
Now, however, climate change and fishing pressure in Mexico and the U.S. are changing the availability and distribution of forage fish, posing new challenges for pelicans. It has long been known that California Brown Pelicans require sardines and anchovies to provision their chicks over a protracted breeding season; indeed, pelicans may be considered an indicator species for the health of stocks of these forage fish. In recent years, sardines and anchovies have been scarce or absent in southern California, resulting in the breeding failures as well as Unusual Mortality Events of juvenile and adult pelicans on the west coast. These multiyear breeding failures are unprecedented in the 45-year unbroken record of colony monitoring.
Yet inadequate management attention is being paid to pelicans, just as they are entering troubled waters. Since the delisting, colony monitoring has not been directly funded nor has a required “Post-delisting Monitoring Plan” been released. In the past year, Audubon and our network of activists have called on the Service to better track and protect pelicans. We also took the additional collaborative step of mobilizing our chapters and partnering with International Bird Rescue to provide stopgap funding and logistic support to ensure colony monitoring was initiated in 2014.
Thanks in part to these advocacy efforts on the part of the Audubon network — including over 2,000 activist letters — the Service has recently identified Brown Pelican monitoring as a priority activity for funding. The agency’s budget should be finalized within the next two months and we are looking to the Service to support basic yet essential monitoring and data analysis of Brown Pelicans at the Channel Islands.
Brown Pelicans have been around for at least 30 million years—they are are tough and resilient. With a little help, this majestic species will continue to prevail. We’ll let you know how the Channel Islands colony, and the funding outlook, shape up over the next few months.