The Dangers of Fishing Line

This spring we will be joined by communications intern Megan Beausoleil, a UNCW creative writing student. She will be joining us in the field and reporting on her experiences and observations.

Did you know that more than 1 million shorebirds die every year as a result of marine debris? 320,000 of those deaths are said to be attributed to discarded fishing equipment, including lines and hooks.

Upon first coming across statistics like these, I was absolutely staggered. Lines and hooks seem so negligible to the environment. What harm could come from a couple of feet of tangled line? Or a lost lure? Even I’ve cut a stuck line in frustration and tossed it to the waves before. But if I do it, then others must, too. And if everyone who fishes cuts their line once per trip, it’s not a far reach to reach a statistic like the one listed above.

I recently came face-to-face with the effects of this negligence, and let me assure you, I will never be so careless with my equipment again.

One sunny morning in February, I joined Audubon biological technician Tara McIver on one of her surveys of Topsail Inlet. For much of the trip, things were pretty low-key. We cruised up the Intracoastal Waterway for a good 20 to 30 minutes, watching pelicans perched on pilings and terns flying overhead. The occasional cormorant takes flight upon seeing us (“They always fly, never dive!” Tara tells me). When we reached the island, I was delighted to see an ibis in flight and two herons sitting in the marshes.

While beach houses and commercial businesses are only a few miles away, it is refreshing to see such serenity in the tidal pools and marshes as we troll by.

It isn’t until we anchor on nearby Lea-Hutaff Island that the day takes a bit of a darker turn. As we return from counting a mix of gulls near the water’s edge, a group of locals stroll by, inquisitive of our efforts. When Tara explains the purpose of our trip, one of the men holds up a three-pronged treble lure the length of a pen. “I just took this out of a gull on the other side of the island,” he explains glumly. “I don’t think she’s going to make it.”

But Tara has other plans. She says if she could get the bird back to SkyWatch Bird Rescue, she might stand a chance to be rehabilitated, or, at the very least, humanely euthanized.

We find the bird, an immature Herring Gull, and it is clear she’s in bad shape. She is bleeding from her bill and both feet, and she cannot or does not have the strength to fly. Tara explains that the injury in her bill will prevent her from eating, and she will likely starve to death. Tara wraps her gingerly in a towel, and to our relief, the bird fights back a bit. This tells us she hasn’t given up yet. Tara gives me the gull to carry back to the boat, and while I trudge over the deep sand of the inlet’s tidal bay, I feel like a soldier carrying a wounded comrade back from the battlefield.

We situate the gull in the boat box, leaving the cover propped for air and head back to the marina. On the way, I can hear the bird kicking and pecking at the sides of the container. This gives us hope that she has a fighting chance. Indeed, when we dock and open the cover the gull has turned herself upright and is glaring at us insidiously. She even gets in a nip at Tara’s finger as she goes to pick her up. Indeed, she is down, but not out.

These Audubon volunteers demonstrate how a towel or jacket can be used to help capture an injured bird. This pelican survived its fishing-line-treated injuries to be released. By Lindsay Addison

Thankfully, we were able to save the helpless gull that day, and she was rehabilitated successfully, but countless other birds are not so lucky. Had we not come along, the bird might have been swallowed by the tide or eaten by predators, or like Tara explained, starved to death.

How can you help prevent such suffering? Always be mindful of your fishing equipment, and report those that are not. Also, if you see discarded equipment, always pick it up and dispose of it properly by either putting it in a fishing line recycling canister or cutting it into short lengths and throwing it away. Although you may be hesitant to handle an injured bird, never turn your back on it. It’s best to try to capture it. A towel is often your best tool to secure the bird. If you can’t catch it, you should still report it to a licensed wildlife rehabber.

For the greater Wilmington area, contact SkyWatch Bird Rescue at (910)-274-8479. Remember, it is always best to give an animal a fighting chance. It will take effort from all sides to prevent tragedies like this from happening, but it can start with you.

How you can help, right now