The Pacific brown pelican subspecies was removed from the federal Endangered Species List in 2009 after decades of successful conservation work and a spectacular recovery. The current population is about 71,000 nesting pairs. Most breeding takes place in Mexico, with about 20% taking place at the U.S. Channel Islands in southern California, the only U.S. breeding colony.
Pelicans are facing trouble as forage fish supplies, particularly anchovy and sardine, have dwindled in recent years and the ocean environment has become more unpredictable. In recent years pelicans have failed to breed in the Channel Island and across its range in Mexico. Pelicans have also experienced die-offs due to sudden freezes at the northern end of its winter range, and they have displayed unusual behaviors related lack of food, such as attacking the chicks of other seabirds. This is alarming pelican experts as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency most responsible for their stewardship.
In 2014, the Audubon network stepped up to help. When a 45-year monitoring program tracking pelican productivity at the Channel Islands was in danger of disappearing, Audubon activists from across the state sent over 2000 letters to the Service calling for increased management attention. Then, eight chapters in southern and central California – San Fernando Valley, Buena Vista, Pasadena, San Diego, Sea and Sage, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Morro Coast – contributed to the support of a leading pelican expert to monitor early season nesting at the Channel Islands. This bridge funding was the essential infusion needed to ensure pelicans were watched over until the Service agreed to allocate the funds to complete monitoring the 2014 breeding season.
Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 8, through its At Risk and Listed Species Fund, has allocated $121,000 for five more years of productivity monitoring at the Channel Islands at a time when this monitoring has never been more important. With additional in-kind contributions from Channel Islands National Park and Island Packers, this monitoring is assured. Furthermore, Region 8 is now urging federal fisheries managers to ensure that fisheries on anchovy and other prey species are managed in a way that leaves enough fish in the water for pelicans and other dependent predators. Finally, Region 8 is co-initiating (with Audubon and eBird) the first citizen science survey of brown pelicans on the west coast, on May 7, 2016 (details will be shared soon). We applaud Region 8 for these very important actions.
Meanwhile, in addition to the upcoming survey, Audubon California and the Audubon Society of Portland, as well as coastal chapters in California, have been fighting to protect forage fish including anchovy, herring and squids.
We will continue to keep you updated and ask for your activism at key policy junctures. In the meantime, mark your calendars for the May 7 survey and enjoy our beautiful brown pelicans.