News center
Get quick help with our 24-hour online service.

Pelicans, murres and whales are feasting off

May 12, 2024

Pelicans are packed so tightly together in this photo some cannot move without bumping their neighbors. Thousands packed every inch of a huge offshore island-rock on some days in July and August. Frank Hartzell/The Mendocino Voice

FORT BRAGG, 8/24/23 — Brown pelican 0C3, whom we will call Ozzie, was having a very bad day on May 16, 2022. Ozzie lay on Southern California’s iconic Hermosa Beach, emaciated by starvation and disoriented from a low red blood count. Ozzie had 12 fish hooks stuck in him, one gouged deep into his shoulder and another sunk into his thigh, causing infection, said Rebecca Duerr, clinical veterinarian and research director for International Bird Rescue. Ozzie couldn’t fly even if he had been strong enough to do so. One wing was wrapped tight to his body in fishing twine. He lay strewn on the beach among hundreds of other stranded, dying pelicans when International Bird Rescue took all the mass stranding victims to their veterinary emergency room.

After a six-week rehabilitation process in which he learned to fly again, Ozzie was fitted with two bands, one a distinctive blue color, and turned loose on July 7 near Royal Palms Beach in San Pedro. Duerr said he then flew off to join a massive flock. Despite the tags, nobody reported seeing Ozzie again until 390 days later, when this reporter photographed him with a zoom lens off Mendocino Village and sent the photos to International Bird Rescue. Ozzie was 556 miles north of where he was last seen.

“We are very happy to hear this bird is doing well,” Duerr said.

I was at an incredible bird viewing spot just off the Mendocino Headlands to investigate why pelicans were so plentiful in 2023. What did it mean for the oceans? Was global warming somehow helping pelicans? Yet there had been a mass die-off in 2022, supposedly due to their overabundance.

Scientists and fishermen shared intriguing theories. In 2022, they were said to be starving amidst plenty because they were so overpopulated, but their population increased in 2023, and they appear to be healthy and thriving with no continuance of the strandings that filled bird rescue centers in 2022. Counts are not final, but it is believed there are more brown pelicans in California than ever seen before. Theories and answers came from sources ranging from a John Steinbeck novel to an innovative ocean study that shows heating and warming cycles were as regular as clockwork for thousands of years—until now. Suddenly everything has changed, and nobody is sure why or what the future holds for pelicans and fisheries.

According to scientists and fishermen, the story centers on anchovies, the key food fish for seabirds and salmon. For reasons still unknown, fry (baby) anchovy are surviving more than ever in the past, creating the biggest schools ever of these critters. Anchovy feasting benefits many seabirds and attracts whales and sea lions, studies show. Other studies show a darker side, that anchovies are now full of microplastics, which break down as a compound that mimics estrogen and moves right up the food chain to humans.

I went ten times to Mendocino Headlands over the course of two months starting in early July. As I photographed pelicans, many other people were also photographing the fast-changing scene.

On the day I shot the picture of Ozzie, a row of photographers gathered silently while the gigantic birds partied on an ocean island just off the headlands.

Five photographers observed the grass- and snowy white guano-covered offshore rock, about 50 feet away and nearly the size of two football fields. Nearly every inch of the towering island was packed tight with brown pelicans, their earnest faces scowling down extraordinary long bills, looking like grumpy wind instrument players in a crowded orchestra pit.

Pelicans hopped up and down while lenses clicked. Pelicans playfully bumped heads. There were pelicans with white heads, brown heads, gray heads, black heads, bald pelicans, skinny pelicans and fat pelicans and one with a blue tag and a metal band — Ozzie. Pelicans curled up and slept while others stretched their tremendous necks to heaven, revealing the translucent two-plus gallon water bags they carry. Some of the pouches appeared to contain swimming fish, even though not one pelican fished nearby. Above, pelicans flew in strict formation, big jets circling the airport on a busy day. Weighing about eight pounds each, larger than a modern meat chicken, they are so large that they would crash into each other if they didn’t observe bill-to-toe circling and landing formations.

This reporter pointed out to sea at two smaller islands, mobbed with two other clusters of sea birds only visible with a telephoto lens: “You should point your camera out there! It’s just as amazing!”

But the others were awed into silence as if they were in a cathedral. The air had an overpowering smell of fresh and rotting fish.

Scientists and birdwatchers say the pelican population explosion, underway for three years now, may be the greatest in history. It started earlier and is going on longer this year than even the all-time record year of 2021.

“There could be as many pelicans on that one island this year as there were in the entire state at their low point in the early 1970s,” said Tim Bray, of the Mendocino Coast Audubon Society.

A look through the zoom lens at those two more distant islands revealed that this plethora of birds is about more than pelicans. One rock was covered with black and white common murres, which standing upright and huddled in circles, look very much like penguins on Antarctic ice. They huddle for months as the mother lays and hatches eggs on the rocks, with the entire community of murres protecting the young. The furthest rock was covered with cormorants. Unlike the nestless murres, the Brandt’s cormorant builds nice round nests but mothers try to pull neighboring mothers’ nests apart. Bray said they have finally learned to build their nests just out of reach of their neighbor’s neck.

Photographer Lisa D. Walker-Roseman, of the Mendocino Coast Audubon Society, enthused over a phone call, “I got out to the Mendocino Headlands this morning to see the pelican-palooza. Holy moly, that place is jammed with birds! I guessed around a thousand brown pelicans and maybe half that many common murres, plus Brandt’s cormorants on nests, western gulls frantically trying to defend their space against the pelicans.. . a lot of drama.”

Also attracted by the hordes of anchovies, humpback whales are collecting in larger numbers along the Mendocino Coast this year than anytime in the past decade.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife marine senior scientist Briana Brady watched from the air during a counting process as sea lions, pelicans, whales, dolphins, birds and fishes of all sizes feasted. Even gray whales, which usually dive to eat crustaceans, have been gobbling the anchovies, some of which are small enough to get through the baleen. Humpback whales love the anchovies too and have been seen frequently this year by party boats. Usually they’re a rare sight.

“Funny you used the word party when you asked about what is going on, because that’s exactly the word that came to mind when I watched,” Brady said.

What is causing the unprecedented ocean feasting? The answer is a fish most Americans know only from a bad pizza experience — anchovies.

There are more anchovies than ever, scientists say. And science knows a lot about anchovies, a lot more than they do about seabirds. The schools of anchovies are so massive that there have been multiple sightings of them coming out of the water in Westport and Usal, flopping on the beach to escape the huge flocks of pelicans, seagulls, seals, sea lions and other ocean animals stuffing themselves on the school.

The huge schools have also created a scientific mystery unprecedented in the study of a “bait” fish at the heart of the ocean food chain. Intense studies of anchovies and sardines got started thanks in part to John Steinbeck’s tragi-comic masterpiece Cannery Row. That 1945 novel and its sequel, Sweet Thursday, were nostalgic looks at the lost glory days of the sardine cannery industry of the 1920s and ‘30s, and are also part of the reason science knows so much about ocean bait fish.

Sardine numbers crashed spectacularly during World War II, ending the fishery that had given life to Monterey. The real-life version of Steinbeck’s fictional marine biologist “Doc” in the book, Ed Ricketts, used the sardine catastrophe to help win the battle for stricter fishing regulations and especially to slow factory boat fishing, an innovation that hastened the demise of the sardine as well as rapidly weakening the entire ocean ecosystem.

A college dropout and famous drunk, Ricketts was nonetheless one of California’s most influential marine scientists. He wrote the textbook Between Pacific Tides, which changed the traditional approach of oceanography textbooks from taxonomy to a description of ecosystems. So shocked were traditionalists by Ricketts’ book, Stanford University refused to print it for nine years. Ricketts’ framing is now more or less universal. Between Pacific Tides was used in college and high schools for decades as a text about tidepool life. Bolstered by the fictional alter ego invented by Steinbeck, Ricketts was also able to write front page articles and spoke widely about overfishing as the main cause of the crash of the lucrative sardine industry. But he also said that was only part of the story and that something else was going on in the ocean that had contributed to the terrifying decline of the once ubiquitous sardine.

Something, Ricketts said, needed to be identified to ensure the future survival of the fish and the fishermen.

Just what is that something? And what do sardines have to do with anchovies?

The collapse of the sardine fishery led to today’s inquiries

Many scientists and literature lovers delight in the fact that Steinbeck’s novels and Doc’s lectures helped tip the balance in a fierce debate the California legislature had been having since before 1920 about enacting regulations on ocean fishing and committing money to studying the oceans.

The California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations (CalCOFI) was formed and funded to study sardines. It’s now a partnership between National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. Established in 1949, after the furor stirred up by the crash of the sardine fishery, Steinbeck’s novels and Ricketts, CalCOFI now conducts quarterly at-sea surveys to monitor marine species and the effects of climate variability in the state’s current ecosystem. It wasn’t long before CalCofi scientists were exploring a previously unknown relationship between sardines and anchovies. In 25-year intervals, sardines would be the food fish found all the way north as far as Washington. When the water turned colder, anchovies would cover much of the same area. Sardines would not migrate from their home range of Baja California and Southern California when anchovies flourished up north, explains Andrew Thompson, Ph.D., a NOAA Research Fisheries Biologist with CalCOFI. Making this more remarkable is the fact that anchovies are too small and frail to migrate. They simply multiply, move into new areas and then move into the next new area. This year they are being seen hundreds of miles offshore, something never before observed, Thompson said. Not to mention being seen so close to shore that they literally come out of the water when fleeing predators, locals attest.

Anchovies, sardines and jack mackerel, the three food chain feeding fish now studied by CalCOFI, breed in the open ocean. A small fish caught by local fishermen and women in large numbers in years past, the surf smelt has not appeared in their usual numbers during the three-year anchovy explosion, fishermen say. Smelt are very important to people who get much of their food by traditional forage practices, including some Native peoples.

“That’s one we would not have much information on,” said Thompson. “Our boat is too big to study the species that live their life in shallow water.” Two kinds of smelt run on the Mendocino coast in most years, one that appears in the surf only during the day and another at night, simply called the day and night fish by locals.

Few species are studied in the way that anchovies, jack mackerel and sardines are studied, from Steinbeck’s day to the present. Thompson said the center continues to get funding not only because the bait fish are important to the food chain and the ocean but because of what else scientists find while studying them. Thompson was about to embark on the annual California Current study that cruises from Baja to British Columbia. NOAA scientists sample and study young “fry” sardines, anchovies and mackerel, which hide out in deep water to avoid being eaten. Thompson says most young ocean fish hide at the same depth during their fledgling days. So the center’s samples catch a huge variety of fledgling ocean fish, which are dutifully reported alongside the sardines and anchovies, greatly enhancing the scientific value of a mission that has been going on for more than 70 years. There have been consistently tabulated surveys of all the fish at depths favored by fledglings in Southern and Central California since 1961, the longest such effort in the world, giving a solid data set. While bait fish science provides many questions, theories and answers, it was difficult to find information on pelicans from scientific studies and publications beyond the fact that they are almost certainly flourishing because of the population explosion of anchovies. But pelican numbers don’t duplicate the ups and downs of sardines and anchovies. Three times in history the big birds have taken drops toward extinction.

While this reporter searched for information on pelicans, scientists tried to help, only to be surprised by how little is out there. Mike Parker of the California Institute of Environmental Studies said, “Honestly, I don’t know of a good study on pelican diet since Frank Gress and Dan Anderson did work back in the 1970s and ‘80s. There probably is some data out there but it hasn’t been published that I know of.”

He said earlier studies of pelicans in Southern California found them eating a diet of 92 percent anchovies. That may have changed, but no studies have been done since the ‘80s.

“We really need to get out there and get that data, but it is difficult to do and funding just isn’t available at this time,” Parker said. “So we assume that the diet hasn’t changed but really we don’t know. The population has increased enough that we probably should take a look at diet.”

All the intense study of anchovies has yielded some horrifying results. A recent Monterey study found that about 60 percent of the anchovies contained microplastics and all common murres had ocean plastic garbage inside them. These studies also found that microplastics release compounds inside anchovies that mimic estrogen, which can have profound effects moving up the food chain, including on humans.

Microplastic in northern anchovies (Engraulis mordax) and common murres (Uria aalge) from the Monterey Bay, California USA – Insights into prevalence, composition, and estrogenic activity

Oher scientific centers dedicated to studying bait fish that arose in Nordic countries, Portugal, Asia, South American and the Atlantic Ocean soon formed a worldwide science team that has a grasp on how all the oceans and their food chains are related. The Peruvian Sea Institute (Imarpe) is especially important as people still depend heavily on anchovies and sardines as human food. This year, the anchovy population in South America suffered a historic collapse and Imarpe ordered closure of fishing for at least the first of two fishing seasons, sending fish meal prices skyrocketing. In the USA, sardines are eaten, but there is little human consumption of anchovies and very little fishing. They are used for pet foods and by the pharmaceutical industry.

Nothing CalCOFI has worked on has been more significant than those 25-year cycles. Off Santa Barbara there are anaerobic ocean floor sediments where fish scales don’t decay. Thompson said sample slices from sediments have been studied that go back tens of thousands of years. “The anaerobic conditions preserve everything pretty well. In a core that constitutes thousands of years you can radiocarbon and then count the number of scales and create a time series.”

He explained that based on the scale deposits “we know these population booms and busts are natural and predate any sort of commercial fishing.” During all that time, anchovies reigned when California ocean waters were cold, and sardines when waters were warm. Until the 21st century. And especially during the last three years when the dramatic change happened.

Warmer water has led not to a “sardine regime” in Northern California as believed to have been happening for millennia, but mysteriously to this never-seen-before anchovy party.

Salmon need support groups

At every party, there is at least one reveler who overdoes it. In this case it is salmon. Salmon have been gorging themselves on anchovies, which scientists believe has resulted in life-threatening deficiencies of vitamin B1, (thiamine). The anchovies have a compound in them that sucks the thiamine out of salmon, causing reproductive failures since 2021. Hatchery salmon have been getting thiamine shots. The anchovy issue may be a contributing factor to the low salmon numbers that caused the season to close, despite the fact that the krill population is also having a big year. Salmon eat krill when younger and then switch to sardines or anchovies. Krill makes salmon meat pink. Eat too many anchovies, and the meat turns white.

This year, the anchovies are so thick and easy to catch the salmon may be eating just anchovies, scientists and scientific reports say.

California’s endangered salmon population plummets amid new threat

The statewide pelican party has changed the behavior of many other animals, scientists say. Otters have been seen killing and eating pelicans. Many other birds have had to find new food sources due to pelicans who don’t want to share. Birds like cranes in particular.

Brown pelicans breed and live along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America and down to northern South America. There are also white pelicans, one of the largest birds on earth. White pelicans breed and fledge their young in inland lakes, such as in Nevada’s Pyramid Lake. Some migrate to the coast, though normally not off Mendocino.

Brown pelicans, overwhelmingly plentiful right now, had two brushes with extinction in the 20th century, one in the early years when they were hunted for food, which was resolved by migratory bird hunting bans and restrictions. The giant birds were right on the brink in the late ‘60s, due to DDT, a pesticide that made their egg shells thinner so the birds crushed the eggs before they could hatch. The Atlantic brown pelican totally vanished from most of its Gulf of Mexico range, where it is the state bird of Louisiana. A Los Angeles-area factory dumping DDT-laced effluent into the ocean was getting into anchovies and then all the birds. The factory was shut down and DDT banned. Rightwing commentators have long maintained that DDT was a hoax, a position that has reemerged in the current wave of anti-science sentiment.

Rachel Carson’s Critics Keep On, But She Told Truth About DDT – Yale E360

Fewer than ten pelicans were hatched in their breeding grounds off Southern California during the worst year of thin eggshells. The key vulnerability of the California brown pelican to a continued extinction threat is their tiny breeding areas. The only breeding colonies of California brown pelicans in the western United States are within Channel Islands National Park on West Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands. Some breed off Baja. The only way they survived extinction is that the adults are incredibly tough and resilient, like Ozzie. And they live and breed up until age 40.

Brown Pelicans were taken off the endangered species list in the Atlantic in the 1980s and in California in 2009, just before anchovy numbers crashed on the entire West Coast and sardines didn’t fill the gap. The decline of the anchovies led to a steep decline in pelican numbers too, and worries that various sea birds could be pushed back toward extinction.

These terrifying fluctuations bolstered widespread tracking efforts, led by International Bird Rescue’s blue banding program whose California program started in sync with the removal of the pelican from the endangered species list.

Now there are so many pelicans scientists believe they could return to the coast of Central California to breed and possibly even to places like Mendocino County, although that has never been seen. The big birds don’t migrate but they do follow fish seasonally. They are seen all over California, less commonly in Oregon. They are also seen at the mouth of the Columbia River in Washington. If their high numbers continue there is speculation that they could broaden their breeding grounds and thus make themselves much more resilient as a species.

It turns out the huge pelican party that started in 2021 may come at the expense of pelicans further south. Global warming is believed to be a big factor. The portion of the population breeding in the Gulf of California have been experiencing near-complete reproductive failure during this same period (2014-2021). Gulf of California birds may be relocating northward to nest at the Anacapa and Santa Barbara Island colonies, potentially seeking better food availability.

Parker says there are some signs that appear related to climate change but more science is needed. “One thing that we have noticed is that the breeding season has become quite extended at both ends. That is, pelicans are beginning to nest earlier and later into the seasons. This could be climate change but it also could just be a reflection of a larger population.”

There are additional signs of potential climate change impacts. “Other signs are the nesting attempts by pelicans up in Santa Cruz County the last couple of years and up in the Columbia River mouth area,” Parker said. “Warmer conditions allow pelicans to push further north. Again, it could also be the larger population doing this too.”

Will the anchovy boom continue?

“This is a whole new regime so we have no idea what it will look like going forward,” said Thompson. Theories as to why the anchovies are so prevalent in a “warm water regime” include the idea that other factors than temperature may be in play more than previously realized. Thompson said one factor that contributes to the glut is survival of larvae. About 99 percent of all anchovy eggs don’t become adult fish in any year. But how many of that one percent succeeds is what causes the anchovy booms and busts.

The theory is there is some very small organism in the environment that becomes plentiful and is easy for larvae to catch, and in those years that’s when we see anchovy booms. What is happening to create more prey for the juvenile anchovy may be the key to many of the drastic changes in the ocean, and thanks to the funding for studies of anchovy, sardines and jack mackerel, scientists are looking hard for that answer.

Behaviors off the Mendocino coast

All the rocks along the Mendocino coast have been crowded with pelicans this year, even outcroppings far from shore. Pelicans don’t fish near where they rest, at least on the Mendocino coast. They fly about a half mile around the Mendocino Headlands and fish, wading into the surf right next to surfers. Some bob on the surface and try to grab fish. Others dive into the surf with dramatic splashes. They are the world’s largest bird that dive-bombs from the air. Their huge size creates a shock wave that stuns anchovies. Young pelicans are often stunned or even killed until they learn the diving technique. White pelicans are just too large to dive.

Common Murres are having a great time on their rock off the headlands, which one scientist noted was perfect for murres because it’s small enough for them to fill the space and keep pelicans away. Pelicans can wreak havoc on breeding murres; murres are afraid of them and may abandon eggs if the big birds are too close. The pelican numbers are hurting murres in other places, and their numbers are actually down a bit statewide, according to most observers. Cormorants are fierce and not as easily disrupted by pelicans. In fact, they sneak among the pelican flock trying to steal fish.

This reporter got a clear photo of a baby murre, a rare image to see, Audubon members and local photographers say. Wrote Walker-Roseman by email: “Fantastic to get a clear photo of a Common Murre chick! Normally they are hidden among the adults. Few birds nest so close together as Murres — their choice of exposed rock ledges leaves them vulnerable to avian predators (Ravens and Gulls especially) so they crowd together to protect the chicks.”

Murres huddle in tight circles around the sitting female, which does not use a nest. And then they continue standing like the penguins they resemble, circled as if they are all watching some exciting contest in the middle of the group. The circle ensures that no aerial predator can dive and eat the little one. When the baby murre becomes old enough to swim but not fly, Dad murre takes over from Mom. Dad and the youngster or youngsters, leap from the rock into the ocean far below. There the dad looks after the baby murres and helps them learn to forage and fly, while Mom gets some time off and brings treats. Photographers say murres mostly do this dive at night, so this feat has been very rarely photographed.

Brown pelicans fly more than a quarter mile to the area just beyond Big River beach to hunt. Then they fly back to the big rock to groom, nap and socialize. The big rock is often so packed, incoming pelicans circle until they give up and fly off to try again later. They come in a wide variety of sizes. The eight pounders are the females and the 12 pounders are the males. Ozzie was in between, meaning International Bird Rescue didn’t know his or her sex, with sexing done in adults solely by size.

Ozzie was a bit of an anomaly

“It was mostly young of that year that had trouble feeding in the intense winds that blew for several days straight. Very few adults or subadults were impacted so that was the assumption, and I think the hypothesis was most likely correct based on what I know and saw,” Parker said. Ozzie was two years old when he ended up on the beach. However, his problem was mostly entanglement from fishing line and hooks, not the weird starvation that the younger birds around him suffered from, scientists say.

The constant grooming behavior of pelicans with those long sword-like bills looks impossible and possibly painful. It’s what made the pelican sacred and famous in art through the centuries. Christians believed the pelican was stabbing itself in the breast and its blood could bring back dead chicks. In King Lear, Shakespeare uses the pelican as an analogy for the regretful king who lost his children and wished he could stab himself, and his blood would bring back the three daughters his own actions killed. Actually, the pelicans are just drying their feathers, which become waterlogged rather easily, in a strange error of evolution.

Beyond superstition, pelicans have impressed countless artists, such as Karin Denson, who features them in her “glitch” acrylic work at Edgewater Gallery. Using the image of a malfunctioning liquid crystal display, she shows nature phasing in and out of existence. “Brown pelicans’ recovery from being driven to near-extinction is a living success story to me,” Denson said. “It nurtures my hope that it’s still in our power to protect and secure our most treasured wildlife for future generations. Glitches can be repaired.”

As to Ozzie, extensive studies of his blue tag brothers shows that adult birds are long-lived and resilient, which is also how they have survived extinction. Of 1418 blue-banded individuals in the study that were admitted for rehabilitation and released, 49.9% were sighted again at least once. At the most recent count, 79.2% were alive. Fifty-five of those birds were not spotted again until five to eleven years after release, a study of the program showed.

.The collapse of the sardine fishery led to today’s inquiriesSalmon need support groupsWill the anchovy boom continue?Behaviors off the Mendocino coastOzzie was a bit of an anomaly