Port San Luis, Morro Bay revamp fish-cleaning facilities to protect pelicans

Pelicans and a sea gull, right, wait from scraps from the fish cleaning station on the Harford Pier at Port San Luis last week.
Pelicans and a sea gull, right, wait from scraps from the fish cleaning station on the Harford Pier at Port San Luis last week. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Saltwater sport fishing is a great way to connect with nature and the outdoors.

However, concerns have been raised recently that one aspect of the pastime — fish-cleaning stations and the fish carcasses they produce — may be injuring pelicans. Pelicans are popular coastal birds because they are often seen gliding inches above the surf and plunging into the ocean from high in the air to capture baitfish in their huge, pouched bills.

Although there is not universal agreement that the stations pose a genuine threat to pelicans, the controversy has heated to the point that it is going all the way to the state Coastal Commission and has prompted the two ports in San Luis Obispo County to take steps to make their fish-cleaning stations more wildlife-friendly.

Upgrades to protect wildlife have been made to the fish-cleaning stations at the boat launch in Morro Bay and on Harford Pier in Port San Luis. These have consisted mostly of installing mesh screens and other deterrents to keep pelicans away from cleaning stations and their trash cans.

“This is definitely an issue,” said Mary Matakovich, Port San Luis harbor commissioner. “We are approaching this from the standpoint of determining the problem and coming up with solutions.”

Plight of the pelicans

Fish-cleaning stations are common features of coastal ports and marinas. They are facilities with cutting boards and running water where recreationally caught fish can be cleaned and the unwanted portions of the fish disposed of.

Problems arise because the cleaned fish carcasses and the water used to clean them can be discarded straight into the ocean. This draws crowds of seals, brown pelicans and other seabirds looking for a free meal.

“Sometimes fishermen will even hand fish carcasses directly to pelicans sitting on the railings,” said Loch Dreizler, Port San Luis facilities manager.

Fish carcasses can have sharp spines in their dorsal fins and exposed bones that can puncture a pelican’s pouch or get stuck in its throat. Pelicans normally eat small, soft-boned fish such as sardines and anchovies.

Discarded carcasses can also cause fights between pelicans and seals in which the pelican can be injured. Finally, the water used to clean the fish can contain enough fish oil to saturate a pelican’s feathers and rob them of their insulating power. The effect is similar to a pelican being oiled as a result of an oil spill.

The plight of the pelicans received substantial exposure when it was highlighted in a documentary film called “Pelican Dreams,” which played at the Palm Theatre in San Luis Obispo in November 2014.

The problem is not limited to San Luis Obispo County. Stations in Crescent City and Redondo Beach have had to replace their cleaning stations with new pelican-proof versions that can cost up to $350,000, Dreizler said.

Party boats

Lt. Todd Tognazzini, state Fish and Wildlife warden assigned to San Luis Obispo County, said rescuers with Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay occasionally treat pelicans that could have been injured by a fish-cleaning station.

The latest instance of an oiled pelican occurred a year and a half ago, he said. There was also a dramatic recent case in which the carcass of a vermillion rockfish became lodged in the throat of a pelican and had to be removed.

However, Tognazzini said it is not clear that fish-cleaning stations were responsible for these incidents. Often, the source of oil on a bird’s feathers cannot be determined.

Also, a fish lodged in a pelican’s throat could come from numerous sources. For example, sport fishing party boats clean dozens of rockfish and throw the carcasses into the ocean as they come back to port.

“To say that these fish-cleaning stations are causing pelicans to be oiled or harmed, to me, is a stretch,” Tognazzini said.

Changes made

In spite of these uncertainties, both Morro Bay and Port San Luis have made upgrades to their fish-cleaning stations to reduce these problems and are considering spending tens of thousands of dollars to do even more.

In Morro Bay, a dumpster was moved closer to the fish-cleaning station and both have been equipped with screening and other equipment designed to keep pelicans away, said Becka Kelly, Harbor Patrol supervisor. Signs warning anglers not to feed the birds have been installed.

The city has also applied for a grant from the state Department of Boating and Waterways to remodel the boat-launching ramp and install a new, fully enclosed fish-cleaning station. The cost of the new cleaning station is estimated to be $50,000, Kelly said.

On April 28, the Port San Luis Harbor Commission appointed an ad hoc committee to look into the fish-cleaning problem. The committee has met four times.

At the committee’s recommendation, mesh has been installed on two sides to keep pelicans out of the cleaning station and vertical pipes have been added to the large diameter drains that empty into the ocean. These pipes hang down to the waterline and are intended to prevent the oily fish-cleaning water from splashing onto the pelicans that cluster in the water below the cleaning station.

The port is waiting to see if these improvements are effective, Dreizler said. If they are not, the Harbor Commission has added $25,000 to the harbor’s capital improvements budget to install more pelican deterrents including more screens and an animal-proof dumpster.

Sierra Club appeal

Those improvements have not satisfied the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club, which is using the station as a basis to appeal the port’s Harbor Terrace campground development to the state Coastal Commission.

On June 16, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors gave final approval to the development that will offer a variety of camping options on a 32-acre site near the entrance to Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. The Sierra Club appealed the Harbor Terrace project to the Coastal Commission saying it would exacerbate the problems associated with the fish-cleaning station.

“The Harford Pier fish-cleaning station in Port San Luis is bound to see an increased level of use by those who, in the course of their stay at Harbor Terrace, will take advantage of recreational fishing opportunities in and around Avila Bay,” the June 25 appeal stated.

The Sierra Club is negotiating with the harbor district to arrive at a settlement, said Andrew Christie, director of the local Sierra Club chapter. If a settlement is not reached the appeal could go to the commission as early as August.


The problem: Fish carcasses discarded into the ocean from fish-cleaning stations are often eaten by brown pelicans. When pelicans eat fish, the exposed bones and spines of the carcasses can puncture their pouch, get stuck in their throats and even damage internal organs.

What’s being done: Port San Luis and Morro Bay have added screening and other improvements to their cleaning stations to make them more pelican-proof. Both are pursuing grants for more improvements.

The cost: Morro Bay is proposing spending up to $50,000 for a new station, and Port San Luis is proposing spending up to $25,000 to improve the Harford Pier station.

What the public can do: Do not dispose of cleaned fish carcasses by dumping them in the ocean. Instead, throw them away in the trash cans or dumpsters at the cleaning stations. The same tip applies on a boat: Throw the carcasses in the trash, not the ocean.

— David Sneed