The Coastal Star

Along the Coast: Teen makes pelican rescues her own mission

Anastasia Neff, with an injured pelican she managed to save, makes it her goal to rescue and document pelicans.

Photo provided

By Cheryl Blackerby

    An osprey with a fish in its beak flew overhead, a blue heron perched at the end of a pier and submerged manatees blew bubbles next to Anastasia Neff’s kayak.

    It was an idyllic scene in Lake Worth Lagoon that made the horrors of Pelican Island even more appalling. 

    Dead pelicans hung high in the island’s mangrove branches, monofilament fishing line wrapped around wings and feet. Fishing line with a sinker weight trailed from one bird’s gaping bill, a treble hook embedded in its throat.

    Three birds had silver metal bands, tagged by biologists, on their dangling legs.

    Fifteen-year-old Neff counted eight dead pelicans in the trees, and one in the shallow water that covered the island, just north of Hypoluxo Island, at high tide. 

    Tromping over the mangrove roots in rubber boots, she pointed out a lifeless pelican lodged on a branch, fishing hooks protruding from its throat, its white and gray wings, ruffled by the breeze, spread in death.

Anastasia Neff works her way through a stand of mangroves

north of Hypoluxo Island looking for injured pelicans.

Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

Mission to save pelicans

    Neff, who grew up on Hypoluxo Island, is on a mission to save the pelicans. As a small child, she named the little mangrove island near her house Pelican Island, but she now calls it Dead Pelican Island. 

    She has recruited friends to cut the fishing line out of the mangroves so pelicans, which like to roost on the island, don’t die. She has pulled out fishing hooks snagged in their mouths and wings. 

    “You push the hook through, snip off the barb, then push it back out,” she says of the grisly task.

    After one pelican died, Neff felt its throat and found five more hooks.

    Her mother, Candace Neff, used to help, but Candace finds the island too depressing these days. “Where there might be one dead pelican years ago, there are now many more hanging in the trees,” she said. And often there are those that are not yet dead, desperate to escape the fishing line.

Candace Neff helps her daughter by spotting from a kayak.

    This is a familiar problem for the South Florida Wildlife Center in Fort Lauderdale, says Sherry Schlueter, the center’s executive director.

    “We get brown pelicans in frequently,” she said. “At least 75 percent are coming in for fishing hook and fishing line injuries.”

    The center has wildlife ambulances, three veterinarians, and a staff of 60 who rescue wildlife in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

    “We’ve had to rescue pelicans from high trees with line wrapped around their heads and necks and feet,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of pelicans who have ingested hooks that are swallowed with a fish. Many of those require pretty extensive surgery. The hooks can do a lot of damage to the esophagus and stomach. And cause long drawn-out agony and death.”

Policy on fishing hooks

    Other places in Florida are getting tired of seeing pelicans injured by fishing hooks.

    On April 2, Naples became the first town in the state to pass an ordinance that forbids treble hooks and fishing lines with multiple hooks on the city pier. The law was passed in reaction to 76 injured pelicans in December alone. 

    Clearwater has had a treble hook ban for 15 years, although it’s a policy, not an ordinance.

    “I’ve had my share of rescuing pelicans, and it does seem most do have those treble hooks, which is not to say regular hooks don’t cause damage, too,” said Ricardo Zambrano, regional biologist at Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

    The fishing hooks and line are just two more problems on a long list for the brown pelicans. Another is the disturbance of nesting areas, he said. 

    “They were susceptible to the use of the pesticide DDT and their numbers dropped quite a bit. They are coming back from a decline, but they are still not out of the woods,” he said. 

    Zambrano warns fishermen not to cut the line if a pelican is snagged by a hook. “If you cut the line, the bird goes free and most likely will get tangled in the line. Try to bring the bird in safely, if possible. Cover the bird with a T-shirt or towel, and cut the hook’s barb off, which will allow it to be removed safely. And then call a wildlife rehab center,” he said.

    Schlueter reminds rescuers not to close the bird’s bill. “Most people don’t know that if you keep the bill closed they can’t breathe,” she said.

    On the day in late April when Anastasia counted the nine dead pelicans, a brown pelican landed on a nearby branch, thought better of it and flew off.

    Neff stopped to admire its slow-motion flight over the water.

    “I think they’re beautiful, ” she said. “They’re very sweet, and when they look at you their eyes are very soft.”

    The ninth-grader at G-Star School of the Arts hopes to someday make wildlife documentaries. Surely, at least one will be about pelicans.

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