Toxic algae is killing off endangered brown pelicans

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Posted by on April 13, 2006 at 16:31:16:

Birds are being treated in San Pedro. Sea lions are also being poisoned and some marine life is unfit to eat.

By Lee Peterson
Daily Breeze

Pelicans are falling from the sky in the South Bay and Harbor Area, victims of the same toxic bloom of ocean algae that's sickening sea lions and also making shellfish unfit for human consumption, wildlife rescuers said Wednesday.

More than three-dozen endangered California brown pelicans have been taken to the International Bird Rescue Research Center in San Pedro in the past week, 18 of those dead on arrival and the rest receiving treatment.

Many more are dying in the wild, either at sea or on inaccessible jetties, center officials said.

A neurotoxin produced by the algae makes its way up the food chain to the pelicans and marine mammals and can result in seizures and death for the wildlife. Meanwhile, the state Department of Health Services recently issued a warning against the consumption of certain sport-harvested mussels, and parts of anchovies, sardines, lobsters and crabs. The shellfish and fish are unfit for people and their pets due to the toxic algae bloom.

The poisoning has misdirected some pelicans to places like Commerce and Hollywood, farther inland than they would normally go. Others are just dropping from the sky. On the ground, they may suddenly flip on their backs and kick at the air.

"They become very disoriented, they fly in different directions, they even fall out of the sky," said IBRRC Executive Director Jay Holcomb. "Yesterday we got one out of a parking lot in San Pedro."

The first signs of "domoic acid" poisoning started showing up in February among sea lions. Where possible, the animals are taken to the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro.

Now that center's next-door neighbor at Fort MacArthur, the bird center, is starting to take in sick pelicans exhibiting the head-bobbing, shaking symptoms characteristic of domoic acid poisoning.

Many of the pelicans are taken to the center by the Whale Rescue Team's Peter Wallerstein, who also rescues marine mammals from the coastline.

Wallerstein, extremely busy with wayward elephant seals and domoic-sickened sea lions -- already rounding up and transporting 83 of the marine mammals so far this year -- has put out the call for volunteers to be trained to help with the sick pelicans. "I've seen them land on houses, we are getting them out of yards," Wallerstein said. "They drop wherever they have their seizure."

Wallerstein said so many birds have been injured that the state Department of Fish and Game should treat the toxic algae bloom like an oil spill.

"These are protected animals. This is a crisis. Many more pelicans would have been able to be rescued if we had more resources down here," Wallerstein said.

At the bird center, the pelicans are treated first with intravenous fluids because they are so dehydrated. Often within 48 hours, Holcomb said they will improve and they can be released to the wild after about a week.

The domoic acid effect forced record numbers of sea lions to the beach last year, but was not that bad for pelicans.

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