Off the hook

Jeff Megahan | VOLUME 24, ISSUE 2
B.G. Strauch
Each year hundreds of seabirds and other wildlife become victims of discarded litter. Some mistake lures and baits for food, with painful results.

Australia is blessed with a wide-ranging assortment of wildlife, thousands of kilometres of continuous coastline, hundreds of bays and estuaries and coral reefs that are the envy of the world. And while it’s easy to take it all for granted, there are thousands of volunteers around the country who donate their time to keep it as pristine as possible.

Coastcare is Australia’s largest coastal community volunteer network and is engaged in a wide range of activities aimed at preserving and protecting our fragile coastal environment. To assist in the tireless efforts of these volunteers, Club Marine last year engaged in a partnership with Coastcare to provide financial support and insurance cover for five specific Coastcare projects around Australia.

As boaties, fishos and beachgoers, we routinely reap the benefits of the work of Coastcare volunteers, but many of us remain unaware of what they actually do. As part of our affiliation with Coastcare, Club Marine is bringing the stories of some of their exploits to Club Marine Magazine readers.

Founded in 1992 by Lance Ferris, a former police officer (see The pelican policeman, P120), Australian Seabird Rescue in Ballina, NSW has grown into an internationally-recognised seabird and turtle rehabilitation and study facility. Today there are over 200 volunteers working at three branches of ASR along the NSW coastline. We recently paid a visit to the Ballina facility to learn more about this Club Marine-backed endeavour.


At 8:00am, the first wave of volunteers arrives at the lush and beautiful grounds of the ASR headquarters in Ballina. A steady rain is falling outside, but the staff is focused on other things.

Currently, there are 39 turtles hospitalised at ASR and as volunteer Michael Hughes defrosts the turtles’ ‘morning tea’ (3kg of squid and 2kg of fish, each day), he explains the system. “The turtles are separated into one of the seven different tanks on site based on their health. The newest arrivals (the ones that look the sickest) are placed in shallow water in small tanks. As they recover, they are moved to the bigger tanks. And, once they’re back to fighting strength, they are returned to the wild.”

When Rochelle Ferris (Lance Ferris’s daughter), who manages ASR along with her partner Keith Williams, arrives, I ask her why there are so many turtles on the property, given the fact there is no ‘Turtle’ in “Australian Seabird Rescue”.

Rochelle explains that sick turtles need critical care. “Usually, with seabirds, we can patch up the hook and line injuries in the field and release them on the spot,” she says, “but we always bring the sick turtles to the hospital straight away.”

Australian Seabird Rescue didn’t set out to care for sick turtles, but it realised that it was spending a lot of time on the local beaches, almost tripping over them while rescuing injured birds. Since the nearest turtle rehabilitation centres are 100km from Ballina, and since it had the knowhow, it adapted its facilities to meet the need. Today, ASR treats about 60 turtles and 300 birds a year.

Out back, in a tank all on his own, is “Sheldon”, a 90-year-old green turtle with an enormous gash cut out of his shell. Easily the biggest turtle I have ever seen, Sheldon weighs 90kg and looks like a huge leather sofa with flippers. Sheldon was injured by a boat propeller about three weeks back. He was discovered by a family on holiday, who called ASR. It took six people to load him onto a truck and bring him in.


While a boat obviously inflicted the injury on Sheldon, it turns out that boats are not the turtles’ biggest threat. “The problem,” Rochelle Ferris says, “is plastics.”

Forty per cent of turtle fatalities seen by ASR are linked to plastic ingestion. Plastic bags can look like jelly fish to a hungry turtle, but when a turtle swallows one it gets something called “float syndrome”, which is basically a life-threatening case of ‘gas’. The gas creates buoyancy, forcing the turtle to the surface, where it treads water helplessly, sometimes for long periods of time. As a result, they can become encrusted in barnacles and are susceptible to boat strikes.

When rescued and brought to ASR, the turtles are put on feeding regimes and antibiotic treatments to eliminate the gas and get their systems working again. Once the turtle can descend to the bottom of the tank, ASR volunteers know their digestive systems are back to normal and they can be released back into the wild.

The room next to the turtle hospital is the education centre, used for training workshops and presentations for schools and social clubs. On the walls of the lecture hall are photos of some of the injured birds that have been successfully treated by ASR – like the 2000 pelicans that ASR volunteers have rescued and rehabilitated across Australia since 1992.

But they have not done it alone. Even with 200 volunteers, ASR depends on the general public for information on sick and injured pelicans.

“Pelicans are our biggest focus,” explains Ferris, “because they’re not treated by other care groups, and catching them requires a specialised skill. We focus on pelican injuries because they are rarely reported. Pelicans don’t ordinarily interact with people and, except for fishermen, they tend to keep their distance from the general public.”

Overall, says Ferris, around 60 per cent of the sea birds that ASR treats are pelicans, while the remaining 40 per cent include seagulls, terns, cormorants and any other birds that share the same environment with the pelicans. Injuries are generally caused by entanglement in discarded fishinglines, or sometimes through birds mistaking lures or bait for food.

On the morning of my visit, there were three seabirds being rehabilitated on site: a brown shearwater, a seagull and a cattle egret.


Having a bird take a bait or lure is not an unusual experience for most fishermen, but it can be very difficult to free the hooked bird without injuring it further. The end result of a bird on the end of a fishing line is nearly always ugly and involves a lot of squawking, flurries of feathers and the sometimes dangerous struggles of a distressed and injured bird. ASR has had plenty of experience and heard plenty of stories of hooked birds over the years, and it has some good advice to anyone facing the predicament. Basically, don’t panic and don’t cut the line.

With their special focus on pelicans, ASR advises that, if you hook a pelican, don’t be afraid.

They actually only weigh around 6-7kg and have no biting power; their beaks are designed for scooping, not biting.

No matter the species, if you hook a bird, pull it in as gently as you can and attempt to remove the hook – do not cut the line. If the hook is deeply embedded, you may need to subdue the bird before pulling it out. The best strategy here is to place a towel or shirt over the bird, covering its eyes, then remove the hook as gently as possible. If all else fails, and it’s at all possible, you may be able to place the injured bird in an esky or other container and call ASR on (02) 6686 2852. It has a national database of wildlife rescue organisations and should be able to put you in touch with the appropriate people to help the injured bird.

The pelican policeman

A gritty and determined wildlife warrior, ASR founder Lance Ferris was a champion of injured seabirds.

Lance Ferris’s training as a policeman proved uniquely useful when he was first confronted by an injured pelican. And the encounter provided the impetus to embark on a crusade to save injured wildlife that ultimately launched Australian Seabird Rescue.

It all began in 1992. Ferris was conducting an excursion to a park with some special-needs children from a local school. The group happened upon a pelican and Ferris noticed that it had a hook buried in its right leg. To catch the bird, he ran across the road to a bait shop to get some fish. When he returned, the pelican had a hook in its left leg.

“Few people would have realised that they were dealing with two different birds,” says Marny

Bonner, current president of ASR, “but Lance knew it immediately because of his police training.”

Concerned at the odds of seeing two pelicans with similar hook injuries in such a brief span of time, Ferris wondered if this was evidence of a wider problem. His investigations led him to a sand quay in the middle of Ballina’s Richmond River, where he was shocked to discover that, out of a population of 108 pelicans, 38 were suffering from hook-line injuries.

“I could not believe how bad the situation was,” said Ferris in an interview on ABC’s Australian Story in 2003. “I might have been in the police force, but that doesn’t mean to say you don’t get cut up when you see so much damage. There were some (pelicans) with amputated wings and gangrene in their legs. It was horrible.”

The experience changed the course of Ferris’s life. Realising the extent of the incidence of injured pelicans and other seabirds, he decided to do something about it. With little more than passion and a willingness to work around the clock to save injured pelicans, he started Australian Seabird Rescue.

Plunging headlong into his crusade, his dedication saw him endure years of poverty and deprivation. As he struggled to cope with the number of injured birds, he lived without electricity and gas, and, during some particularly lean times, even without food.

Steadily, his commitment to rescuing injured pelicans yielded results. Aided by Bonner and a growing band of ASR volunteers, hundreds of birds were captured, treated and returned to the wild. Soon the media took up the story and Ferris became a nationally-recognised expert on pelicans.

In the end, his tireless devotion to Australia’s wild life eclipsed his concerns for his ownwell-being. On October 14, 2007, the wildlife warrior and conservationist suffered a major stroke and, while continuing to administer the ASR from his hospital bed, died soon after. He was 60 years old.

While fishing is the cause of the majority of injuries it comes across, ASR says it relies on fishermen to help them in their work.

“At the end of the day, fishermen are our biggest allies,” says Ferris. “If anyone is going to see an injured bird, it’s going to be them and we really want them to feel they can ring us anytime.”

By steadily developing a relationship and education program with fisherman for the past 17 years, ASR has achieved commendable results. Recent research shows that pelican injury rates in the estuaries of Ballina have been reduced by 60 per cent.

Club Marine is proud to be a supporter of Australian Seabird Rescue. To find out more about its activities, go to, or to view other Coastcare-associated projects, go to:

How to avoid injury to birds when fishing:

• Fish away from bird feeding and nesting areas

• Avoid using unattended lines

• Don’t use stainless steel hooks – they take years to break down in the environment

• Cut discarded fishing line into small pieces before you throw them into rubbish bins

• Don’t leave anything behind, especially plastic bags, which can be fatal to turtles and other marine life

If you do hook a seabird:

• Don’t cut the line

• Gently reel the bird in

• Place a towel or shirt over the bird’s head and eyes then carefully try to remove the hook or line

Keep the phone numbers of your local wildlife group on your mobile phone, so you can phone them for advice or to report the injury, or call Australian Seabird Rescue on (02) 6686 2852.

Creature Features