Unprecedented numbers of sick brown pelicans on Malibu beaches

California beach scene, with two surfers in the water and brown pelicans flying in the sunset sky.

It’s been 10 years since the last “unusual mortality event” of brown pelicans on the Malibu coast, but unfortunately, it appears to be happening again.

“This morning, we took a walk along Surfrider Beach, and there were 15 dead or close to dying pelicans,” resident Clifford Waeschle wrote to The Malibu Times. “As we approached the Malibu Pier, there were an additional 20 pelicans dying or on the verge of dying. One surfer we spoke to said it was due to the red tides or domoic acid poisoning.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “red tide” is a common term used for a harmful algal bloom. Harmful algal blooms, or HABs, occur when colonies of algae — simple plants that live in the sea and freshwater — grow out of control while producing toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, and birds. The human illnesses caused by HABs, though rare, can be debilitating or even fatal. While domoic acid is a kainic acid-type neurotoxin that causes amnesic shellfish poisoning, it is produced by algae and accumulates in shellfish, sardines, and anchovies. 

But probably no one is more aware of the current crisis than the local California Wildlife Center (CWC), part of whose mission is to rescue sick and injured seabirds from Malibu’s 21 miles of coastline.

“We have received 50 brown pelicans this month to date, compared to zero in the same time period in 2021 and 2020,” wrote CWC Executive Director Jennifer Brent. “We have been inundated with calls of suffering pelicans throughout the Malibu area — at some sites, there are multiple birds in need of assistance as well as dead birds. Once our ICU staff stabilize the birds and [in some cases] remove fishing line as needed, our staff transfers them to International Bird Rescue in San Pedro, who specializes in water birds and are the best place for the birds to go for intensive care.”

Brent continued to explain that “the California Department of Fish & Wildlife is performing necropsies on some of the birds to help determine the reason for their death, but as of now, it is unknown.”

A number of theories about the cause of the sickness and starvation have been put forth — but nothing definite has been proven. CWC reports that “fish stock levels have remained high and the water off the Malibu coast has remained cool,” which debunks any theories about a lack of fish or too-warm water temperatures.

In addition, CWC reports that “this spring, around 13,000 brown pelicans were born on the Channel Islands of Anacapa and Santa Barbara, which is a robust group and doesn’t indicate a threat to the species as a whole.”

“We’re not the only facility that has seen a dramatic increase in pelicans needing help,” Brent explained. “The most affected areas are from the coast of Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. Most of the pelicans that we’ve received to date are starving, and many have secondary problems as a result of this lack of food. Quite a few have come in with entanglement wounds — fishing lines and hooks wrapped around their beaks and bodies. These injuries have occurred as the birds have been venturing closer to piers and fishermen in search of food. Fishermen have reported untangling the birds and releasing them, only to see the birds fall into the ocean, too weak to fly.”

The Bird Rescue center reported that 101 pelicans had been brought to them since May 12, with a couple hundred more expected. Rebecca Duerr, director of research and veterinary science, said there haven’t been so many sick or injured brown pelicans since 2012, when the operation saved about 800 birds. She said most of the birds the center is seeing now are coming from Malibu and the Santa Barbara County coastline.

Brown pelicans were put on the endangered species list in 1970 due to DDT exposure but removed in 2009. 

Bird Rescue officials reminded fishers not to cast lines into groups of feeding birds to avoid snaring the birds. The public was also reminded to keep an eye out for pelicans landing in unusual locations such as along Pacific Coast Highway.

“If you find a pelican in need, do not attempt to pick up the bird,” Brent advises. “Call us at (310) 458-9453. Please do not disturb the birds — selfies are inappropriate and further stress the birds that are already in peril. If you find a dead bird, please do not touch the bird. Call animal control to pick up the deceased animal and report.”