IT SHOULD SURPRISE no one that the coast of Southern California is a difficult place for wildlife to make a living. Tens of millions of people, busy ports, toxic urban and agricultural runoff, overexploitation of marine resources and the relentless destruction of rivers and estuaries make it astonishing and somehow reassuringly life-affirming that thousands of terns -- slim seabirds related to gulls -- manage to nest along our shores.
But the events of last week -- when the bodies of several hundred young Caspian and elegant terns were found littering the Long Beach Harbor shore, and the nesting efforts of perhaps 2,000 adult terns on two barges in the port were carelessly erased -- underscore the clumsiness of our wildlife-protection efforts and the tenuous threads that sustain our remaining natural heritage.
The basic facts are understood but still the subject of an ongoing investigation. During the spring, up to 1,000 pairs of Caspian and elegant terns terns set up housekeeping on two unused, privately owned rock-hauling barges in Long Beach Harbor. These are species that nest in large, dense colonies, choosing islands or other sites isolated by water to evade land-based predators. Elegant terns are at the northern end of their range here -- they nest in a couple of colonies in Orange and San Diego counties, but 90% of the world's population of 25,000 to 30,000 pairs breeds on Isla Rasa in the Gulf of California. Caspian terns are more widespread, with up to 35,000 pairs breeding at scattered localities in North America.
By mid-June, the colony on the two barges was well known. Harbor tour operators delighted their patrons with colony visits but kept their distance -- tern colonies are highly susceptible to disturbance by humans and predators.
But on June 28, young terns, not yet capable of flight, began washing up dead on the shore near Belmont Pier. It turns out that one of the barges had been towed away, but only after all of the young had been forced overboard (the evidence suggests a high-pressure hose was used). The second barge's birds still thrived but only for a couple of days; its young were similarly removed -- again, it is not known by whom -- by June 30.
Animal rehabilitation facilities, especially the International Bird Rescue and Research Center in San Pedro, responded quickly to this tragedy. Sadly, the fact that young terns need prolonged parental care suggests that such rehabilitation efforts will have only a modest chance of success and points to the primacy of preventing such events rather than responding to them.
Could the California Department of Fish and Game, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and the Port of Long Beach environmental office have acted preemptively to prevent the loss of an entire breeding season of terns? These agencies were, after all, aware of the barge colony but did not save the birds. Unfortunately, our governmental wildlife agencies have been starved of budget and human resources for years. Enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects birds such as these terns, demands both increased resources and citizen volunteer efforts.
"Terngate" also points to a fundamental problem: Our management of wildlife is disproportionately centered on the protection of the few species that have met the proper political tests to earn and keep an "endangered" or "threatened" designation. The only tern colony site in Los Angeles/Long Beach harbor that has received protective management is for the California least tern, listed by the state and federal agencies as endangered. That's insufficient when species such as the Caspian and elegant terns are kept on the run.
In the short term, given the squeeze on real estate for colonial seabirds in our coastal region, these barges should either be seized from their owners and devoted in perpetuity to the terns of Long Beach Harbor, or fines should be exacted from those responsible and put toward the purchase, placement and monitoring of similar nesting barges in the harbor. If you build it, they will come.