Famine and Frustration in Mallacoota

Pelicans are a common sight in Mallacoota, always appreciated for their elegance in the air, their lovable clumsy gait on land, and their serene and exotic presence on the water.

A few days ago we watched a fisherman and his friend cleaning flatheads on the main wharf. They had a very good catch, filling two buckets during our stay with fish fillets and apparently even keeping the skeletons in a separate bucket. Behind them was an eager flock of approximately 30 pelicans, grunting and alertly keeping position close to the cleaning table. From time to time a flathead skeleton was tossed over the shoulder at the pelicans, who burst into a heap of frenzied activity, all going for the one bit of backbone.

By the time one had emerged as the winner, the whole gaggle of birds had drifted a fair way down with the current. They all came up again close to the two successful fishermen, obviously desperately hungry and willing to endure this close proximity to humans for some food. It was very entertaining to watch and I wondered why the two filleters didn't at least look round and enjoy the sight of these magnificent birds waiting for a bit of a handout.

Pelicans normally stay clear of people and only come to beg during times of starvation - as these birds did. Once they have learned to live (at least partially) from handouts, they tame easier. I felt very, very sorry for these birds, they had no other way than their presence to make their plight known, and these fishermen didn't know or didn't want to understand what was being said. They had caught the fish and that was that. I was very tempted to go and speak on behalf of the 'hungry' but didn't. It didn't look at all promising to me.

In Peru and Chile a few years ago, the Humboldt Stream failed to follow the coast-line and millions of pelicans starved to death. Many invaded small coastal villages, in their desperation, following the inhabitants to their houses. It made soul-tearing photography, but the catastrophe was too large, and little help was possible. We drove home in silence and the plight of OUR pelicans has not allowed me to relax. What can one do to make sure these animals will not starve to death? Maybe stop commercial fishing in the estuary? Very unlikely. However fishermen always claim to be environmentalists ('NOT GREENIES MIND YOU'), express a love of natural things and are heard to want to do the right thing. Would it be possible for the Mallacoota Angling Club to adopt the pelicans in their hour of need? Make them their special mascot to be cherished and helped. Maybe agree amongst members that some of the first fish caught could be offered to the newly accepted feathered friends; a kind of "Thank You", "Beg your pardon", for taking their fish??? And please, stop a minute when fishing or cleaning fish, and appreciate their contribution to our beautiful environment.

Peter Kurz
A reprint from the 'Mallacoota Mouth', 15 June 1992