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Fishing line left behind by anglers is killing seabirds

By Billy Bruce, Staff Writer

Marco Island Eagle // Naples News

2nd June 2004

This great white egret was strangled by fishing wire.
Nearby, its nest of egret chicks starved to death.

Photo courtesy
Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

Environmental specialists say the problem affects nesting areas in Rookery Bay, ABC Islands and Caxambas Pass. The specialists at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve have a message for local fishermen:

Please stop killing birds and wildlife by leaving fishing line behind.

Don't cut it and leave it in trees. And don't leave it in the water.

Fishing line is killing seabirds in prime nesting locations in the ABC Islands and Rookery Bay just northeast of Marco Island, Rookery Bay biologist Beverly Anderson and research translator Renee Wilson said.

If fishermen could see what happens when they leave their lines behind, they'd probably be more careful, the specialists said.

They produced gruesome photographs taken by Rookery Bay research consultant and ornithologist Ted Below to show why discarded fishing line often means death for seabirds.

In one photo, a beautiful great white egret hangs lifeless, its neck squeezed tight by the fishing line. Nearby, its nest of egret chicks eventually starved to death.

In another photo, a brown pelican hangs by its wing, the tips of its feathers wrapped in fishing line. The wing was snagged in the invisible line as the bird flew past. The bird struggled to free itself, but the more it struggled, the worse it became entangled. The pelican either starved to death or died from dehydration, Rookery Bay specialists said.

"These were all birds that were going to raise a family," Below said. "I've even found fish reels that fishermen had cut loose and thrown on the beach and left in the sand. That will entrap birds walking around on the shore."

The specialists are pleading with local fishermen to stay out of the roosting areas and to cast their lines away from the mangroves. If they do snag a line in the mangroves, they should take the time to retrieve it, they said.

"I know it will take some extra effort," Anderson said, "but if they'll just go to the tree-line and reel as much of the line back in as possible, they'll save the lives of birds. One line can kill off a whole generation of birds. It's not unusual to find several dead birds on one line."

Anderson should know. She goes out with Below to study and count birds in the major nesting areas. She's cut down dead birds that may have been hanging in fishing line for weeks.

"It's just so sad," Anderson said. "But this is a pretty easy thing to fix. We need to get the word out to fishermen. Many probably don't realize the harm they're doing by cutting line and leaving it in mangroves."

Those who like to fish near mangroves are being asked to avoid nesting areas, Wilson and Anderson said.

"It's not like we have a shortage of areas that have mangrove trees," Wilson said. "I love to fish. But I've seen what can happen. I never leave fishing line behind. And I never fish near prime nesting locations."

Below has collected data on coastal water bird deaths in Southwest Florida since 1997 and has recorded 98 bird deaths caused by fishing line entanglement. At least 80 percent of those kills occurred in the ABC Islands, Rookery Bay and Caxambas Pass, he said.

Below believes the problem is getting worse, not better. He counted 20 dead birds in 2003, and 10 more that were rescued. A few were found outside of the three main roosting areas, but 99 percent were in those areas, he said.

"People fish around these bird colonies a lot because they think the birds nest there because there must be a lot of fish there," Below said. "The truth is that fish don't like the waters there because there's too much phosphate in the water from bird guano. I've asked a number of fishermen what they've caught, and the honest will say 'not a thing.’ "

Birds aren't the only animal victims of human carelessness. Fishing line left in the water kills manatees, dolphins and turtles, the specialists said.

The statistics on sea creature deaths related to stray fishing line in the water are just as grim. According to a University of Florida study, one in every five manatee rescues from 1980 to 1999 was related to a fishing line entanglement. From 1996 to 2000, at least 35 dolphin deaths in the south-eastern United States were from injuries caused by fishing line entanglement. Researchers have documented more than 60 species of fish that have swallowed or become entangled in such marine debris. And of the 250 seabirds rescued from fishing line entanglement in 1999 and 2000, 92 birds died.

Rookery Bay specialists are hoping seminars for boat tour operators and charter fishing captains will help educate the public. They're also participating in a recycling program by installing PVC pipe receptacles at area boat ramps, fishing equipment outlets and other locations.

Anderson said she and Below have come across line entanglements in mangroves that stretch yards into the trees.

"The line goes on and on, causing a maze network, a dangerous web of line through the trees. And it's a clear material that birds can't see," Anderson said. "The statistics only reflect what's been found. I know there have to be more dead birds that we've just not come across yet."

State officials have campaigned against monofilament line pollution, but Rookery Bay specialists said all fishing line is bad.

"Fly fishermen use stuff that floats, and there's something called spider wire that's braided and very strong," Below said. "I've seen spider wire saw right through the leg bone of a big bird. I don't know why fishermen need line that will catch a whale when they're trying to catch a goldfish."

Any trash left behind by boaters, is it beverage cans, paper, fishing line, or whatever they might toss in the water or on the shore is messy and dangerous to wildlife and humans, Below said.

"The bottom line is, if you take it in there with you, bring it all back out," he said.