Send Them All Packing

White pelicans migrating across Israel gobble fish from farmers' ponds - so what is a kibbutznik to do?

  • Haim Watzman
  • Sep 01, 2001

"FLOCK OF PELICANS over Gaon!" barks a voice over the cell phone in Yaron Kruner's pickup truck. Wasting no time, Kruner swerves around the edge of a huge fish pond and speeds off over a bumpy path in the direction of the Jordan River. This is his professional busy season: He scares birds for a living.

In October or November, about 70,000 great white pelicans make their way south from nesting grounds in the Danube Delta and the Caspian Sea to wintering quarters in the Sudd marshes of Sudan. Along the way, they wing down the Israeli side of the Jordan River Valley, where in recent decades they have stopped to feed in the kibbutzim or collective settlements - where fish farmers make their livings raising carp, mullet and St. Peter's fish (blue talapia) in man-made ponds.

This annual pelican invasion is not a happy occasion for the fish raisers. Like most farmers, kibbutzniks, as the residents of kibbutzim are called, are attuned to the need to preserve a healthy balance between human habitation and wildlife. But when a predator or pest threatens a crop, they feel justified in taking action. Since this particular scourge comes in the form of birds protected by international conservation pacts to which Israel is a signatory, that creates a special challenge.

Enter Kruner. Fish farmers from kibbutzim in the Beit She'an Valley, 18.5 miles south of the Sea of Galilee, pay him a salary to frighten pelicans and cormorants out of their wits. As the James Bond of bird terror, he uses an arsenal of noisy cannon, projector lights, exploding rifle cartridges and other nerve-racking but otherwise harmless weapons against the baggy-billed fish eaters - tactics, he says, that will save the lives of birds that would otherwise be shot by frustrated fish farmers.

In Kruner's judgment, scaring is an approach that makes sense. Not everyone agrees. And that puts Kruner in the center of a brouhaha not just about what's best for pelicans or fish farmers - but over how people in Israel have manipulated nature and might continue to do so.

Repelling the Fish Eaters

Graceful in flight but somewhat comical in their awkward, amphibious landings, great white pelicans weigh between 11 and 20 pounds and measure approximately five feet in length - nearly a quarter of which is accounted for in the expanse of their bright yellow and blue bills. They break and steer toward splashdown with wings that can span about twice the length of their bodies. A descending flock can cause a ruckus no less disconcerting to a hard-working fish farmer than Kruner's explosives are to the birds.

In 1990, before Kruner began his crusade, pelicans were a major problem for the $45-million-a-year industry, fish farmers say. Arriving just as full-grown fish are being transferred to small, densely populated holding ponds - from which they can be marketed through the course of the winter and spring - a flock of pelicans can descend and, over a couple of days, consume a metric ton of fish.

The species is also a vector for three types of parasitic nematodes that grow to adulthood in the pericardial cavities of St. Peter's fish. Since the worms are localized around the heart and can be easily removed, the flesh of infected fish is completely unaffected and edible. But finding a mass of squirming roundworms is an unaesthetic experience, so fish from infected ponds are banned from being marketed fresh and can be sold only to processing plants, which pay much less. In some years, the nematodes have wiped out an entire year's profits, says Akiva Eiger, who heads the fish farming operation at Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi.

In the past, farmers who illegally fired at maurauding pelicans also contributed to a related problem: Their shooting encouraged the birds, which are generally daytime feeders, to eat at night. Ill-equipped to fly in the dark, many flapped straight into power lines and were electrocuted.

To prevent the slaughter, the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, which strictly enforces a ban on harming the protected birds, and the Ministry of Agriculture encouraged the local fish farmers to band together to fund Kruner's pelican eviction operation.

The authority provided know-how, and the kibbutzim paid for the salaries of the squad members - Kruner commanded a team of four when he first started out - and for the special ammunition required.

Largely a solo operator now, Kruner is the very picture of the kibbutznik: a well-fed, jovial, mustached man in standard-issue, blue work fatigues. His bosses, the kibbutzim residents, work and eat together, pooling their resources and receiving services from the collectives.

While no real shells or bullets are involved in the bird scaring, the noise sounds like real warfare. As a result, Kruner takes care to alert the operations officer of the local Israeli army unit of his plans. He also places a direct call to the responsible Jordanian officer on the other side of the border - to make sure that his pelican war doesn't turn into an international incident.

Aberrations From History

So far, all that scaring has worked. Last year, Kruner says, the birds largely avoided Beit She'an. Only a few small flocks landed in the area, and most of them were shooed off before they managed to fill their maws with piscine snacks. In turn, during the time Kruner has been at work, the number of pelicans shot by fish farmers has declined dramatically.

From the start, the hope was that if life was made unpleasant enough for the fishing birds, they would avoid the valley, where two-thirds of Israel's 9,000 acres of commercial fish ponds are located. The strategy was based on the belief that the migrating pelicans were stopping in Israel only because fish farming created a convenient roadside snack for them. The fish-dining diversions were aberrations to the birds' historical feeding habits, the argument went, and the assumption was that the pelicans did not have to eat at all in Israel: They'd begun their journey well-fed enough to reach their African winter homes without any big meals along the way.

Based on years of informal observation, Kruner remains convinced that that is the case. A pelican is principally a glider, the bird boogeyman notes. "If he's got a good updraft, he'll keep going and won't come down. But because he sees food here, he forces himself down from his gliding position to eat. That means he has to work - use his wings, which he doesn't like to do." If the food is unavailable or too much trouble to get, Kruner asserts, the pelicans will just as soon glide on. If there's food around, a bird may even decide to spend the winter in Israel, as several hundred do each year.

Bottom line: Kruner is sure that pelicans were migrating from Europe to Africa for untold years before they started stopping to eat in Israel. After all, the first fish pond in the country was not dug until 1936, he says. Before that, there wasn't much for a pelican to eat in Beit She'an.

Nourishment and Travel

That view is not shared by everyone. About the time Kruner began scaring pelicans, a biologist at Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa began a study of pelican food requirements and metabolism. From 1992 to 1996, Zeev Arad and his graduate students, Marva Shmueli and Ido Izhaki, began collecting dead and injured pelicans, both during the fall migratory season and in the winter. The pelicans, most of which had died of gunshot wounds or from electrocution, were dissected and their fat deposits measured. Twelve injured birds were fed in captivity and their metabolism observed.

Computing the amount of energy the dead pelicans had stored in their fat reserves, the scientists concluded that a bird that did not stop to feed in Israel would have energy to fly just over 1,000 miles, far short of the suspected southern terminus on the species' migration route. (At that time, the pelicans' winter destination was unknown. Attaching beacons to four birds and tracking their flight throughout the season, Arad, Shmueli, Itzhaki and French pelican expert Alain Criveli recently confirmed that the birds do indeed travel to the Sudd marshes in southern Sudan.)

Birds that replenish their fat stores in Israel can, the scientists estimate, fly slightly more than 1,500 miles, enough to reach Sudan. While there are a few other possible feeding sites along their route - in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt - these countries do little to restrain hunters from shooting birds, nor do they provide sanctuaries where migrating birds can feed safely. While no data are available from these countries, Shmueli says that the available evidence on pelican migratory routes seems to indicate that the birds have learned to avoid Lebanon completely because hunters there are so quick to shoot them.

Arad's conclusion? "They've got to eat in Israel."

Debate Over Fish Eating

But what about protecting the Israeli fish farmers? First, say Arad and Shmueli, the damage is not as great as the farmers make it sound. According to the scientists' calculations, the birds can't be eating more than about 360,000 pounds of fish in any one year - just over one percent of the industry's annual yield. Still, the biologists acknowledge, if all those fish come from just a few ponds, they can cause considerable financial loss to a kibbutz.

Shmueli also suspects that pelicans - like herons, cranes and cormorants - may preferentially feed on dead, weak and relatively small fish. While a study of pelican feeding habits in Israel has not been carried out, "the literature from other countries indicates that they like small, easier-to-catch fish." The fact is, Shmueli says, that the birds actually perform a service for the farmer.

In addition to the species being prepared for market, fish ponds almost always contain what are called "wild-laid" fish. These are species other than the ones the farmers are raising, or they may be small, unmarketable fish of the same species. They enter the ponds largely with water that is piped in from other ponds or local bodies of water and eat the food that the farmers put in the pond to fatten up the crop fish. When the pools are drained and the fish harvested, these wild-laid fish are discarded. But fish-eating birds tend to prefer these fish because they're smaller, Shmueli explains.

Hope for a Compromise

When they concluded their study, Arad and Shmueli thought their findings pointed to a solution. If the pelicans have a place where they are not disturbed and the food they like is abundant, they'll eat there and not in the fish ponds. Why not encourage the fish farmers to truck their wild-laid discards to some designated spot where the pelicans could dine peacefully?

An appropriate site was immediately obvious. Until 40 years ago, the Galilee panhandle north of the Sea of Galilee - the Hula Valley - was largely a wetland. The young Israeli state, seeking to eliminate a malarial breeding ground and provide more land for agriculture, drained the swamp and reduced Lake Hula to a fraction of its former size.

But draining the swamp destroyed a unique ecosystem, and the peat soil left behind by the drainage turned out to be low-yielding because of its high nitrate levels. Oxidization of the peat even caused spontaneous underground conflagrations. By the 1980s, Israel's conservation authorities realized the mistake, and they began a long-term project of restoring a large section of the swamp.

Arad thinks that this and other local wetlands, since drained, were historically the pelicans' feeding sites. When the wetlands disappeared, the pelicans had to search elsewhere, and the fish ponds looked inviting.

Four years ago, the Nature and Parks Authority launched a pilot project to see if the scheme would work. Fish farmers from the Hula and Jordan Valleys were encouraged to bring their wild-laid fish to the Hula, where they were dumped.

The pelicans accepted the invitation. "It considerably reduced the pressure on the commercial fish ponds," reports Ofer Sivan of the Agricultural Association of the Upper Galilee Regional Council. Sivan, who is responsible for coordinating pest-control activities in the Hula Valley, says that he and the farmers always prefer a "green solution" when one is available. The project's success led the authority to adopt seeding of the recreated Hula wetland as official policy early last year.

Arguing for a Natural Way

But some researchers argue that carting fish to the Hula Valley creates problems of its own. "We have a very strict policy in general - we do not feed wildlife," says Simon Nemtzov, a wildlife ecologist for the Nature and Parks Authority. "The minute you start feeding pelicans and creating artificial feeding sites, you create a change in migration patterns. We want them to continue their migration in a natural way," he says.

Nemtzov, who also fears more well-fed pelicans might decide to winter in Israel, has additional doubts about the practicality of feeding the pelicans in the Hula. "If you calculate how much fish you need - it's hundreds and hundreds of truckloads. It's simply not available, and you can't put that quality of fish into the reflooded area without causing other ecological problems," he insists.

Nemtzov supports Yaron Kruner's efforts to dissuade the pelicans from eating in Israel at all. Kruner's success in preventing the birds from filling their tummies on their way down to Africa doesn't seem to have done them any harm, Nemtzov maintains: The migration population has remained steady or even increased.

Shmueli strongly disagrees - not all pelicans need to eat and not all of them need full meals, she argues - but the two share common ground on another matter: that there is not, and should not be, a 100 percent solution. Fishermen should realize that they can tolerate a certain amount of fish-eating birds. In any case, once you solve the problem caused by one bird, the fishermen start complaining about another one - including cormorants and pygmy cormorants, Shmueli claims.

Kruner, a fish farmer since childhood, retorts that he and his kibbutz colleagues are solidly for wildlife conservation. But while the scientists and rangers may have data and theories, they lack the intimate, daily field experience of bird behavior that the farmers have, he maintains.

Kruner adds that he's quite willing to tolerate, say, a hundred pelicans in the Beit She'an Valley. "But that means," he says with a smile, "that the one hundred and first one has to be sent packing."

Haim Watzman, a free-lance journalist based in Jerusalem, writes regularly for Nature and New Scientist. California-based photographer Lior Rubin grew up on a kibbutz in Israel. His photographic work features wildlife and the coexistence between people and nature.

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