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Fish Hook Snags Gannet

Seabird brought to Wildlife Care Center for treatment

The Humane Society of the United States


    Fishing hooks, lines and nets are the cause of many injuries suffered by seabirds. A hook caught this juvenile gannet in the eyelid—just missing his eyeball. Antonia Gardner/The HSUS-WCC

  • A crowd of gannets on the mend at the Wildlife Care Center are hanging around outside their therapeutic swimming pool. The center has seen 80 or so gannet patients this year. Gardner/The HSUS-WCC

  • This group of gannets were all released at the same time. Gardner/The HSUS-WCC


    It's take-off time. Gardner/The HSUS-WCC

by Dr. Antonia Gardner

It was a typical day at the Wildlife Care Center in Ft. Lauderdale—busy.  An announcement from the admissions department, however, immediately drew attention from the veterinary staff. 

“A volunteer is coming with a gannet with a hook in its eye!” 

Fish Hooks, Sea Birds Don’t Mix

The center is no stranger to animals, especially seabirds, with hooks, usually swallowed or embedded in a limb.  But it is unusual for them to be on the face, and a large, dirty fish-hook would surely spell disaster to the delicate eye. For a gannet, obtaining enough food to survive with the use of only one eye most likely would be impossible, and in the wild, such an animal would surely starve.

Northern gannets are large seabirds in the booby family. During the summer—their breeding season—they spend their time in a select few colonies in the northern Atlantic. Although it’s very uncommon for them to be as far south as the southern tip of Florida, at times large influxes of them are brought to us. It’s not clear whether they're blown off course by bad weather, brought to the area by fish migrations, or confused by parasites or other illness. 

Whatever the cause, this year seemed to be the Gannet Year: The Center received about 80 of these strong, feisty birds in the first three months of 2010. 

Impatient Patient

As the newest gannet patient came through, he lunged healthily at the medical staff, barking a “gak-gak-gak” – the noise of a gannet telling you he’s going to put up a fight.  His mottled brown plumage marked him as an immature gannet, interrupted on one of his first long migrations.

As the staff restrained him, they saw with relief that this was one lucky gannet. Although there was a large hook through the bird’s left eye-lid, the eye itself appeared uninjured.  It was essentially a piercing, completely missing the eye. 

I quickly anesthetized the gannet, clipped the hook, and removed it from the eye-lid.  A thorough examination of the globe of the eye showed that it was completely unscathed.

After a 10-day course of antibiotics, he was deemed strong enough to attempt release, led by Greg Adler, the center’s chief release coordinator. The bird was brought to the beach with several of his fellow patients and proved he was quite ready to return to his old life. He passed the “flight test” easily, and with a jubilant “gak” was airborne, winging high into the sky above the Atlantic. 

How it Happens

We have no way of telling exactly how that fish hook ended up so precariously close to the gannet’s eye, but it is painfully obvious that fishing gear-related injuries are one of the biggest dangers that sea birds face. 

• Both commercial and recreational fishermen discard old or damaged gear inappropriately around our shores. 
• Fishing line on piers or in the ocean can easily entangle birds, fish, and turtles.  Hooks left in bait fish and cut from lines are easily swallowed and can injure animals internally.
• When lines snag on rocks or driftwood, they are often cut or discarded, and these abandoned hooks end up embedded in a leg or a wing, sometimes with fatal consequences. 
• Fishermen clean their fish at the pier and discard the offal into the water, attracting seabirds, especially pelicans, which then can become entangled in the lines of other fishermen or accidentally hooked when lines are cast. 

What You Can Do

• Never discard fishing equipment into the water or leave it on a pier; discard appropriately. 
• Avoid casting in areas where lines are more likely to be snagged or where dense populations of seabirds congregate. 
• Never cut a snagged line or throw bait into the water with hooks attached. 
• Clean fish at home or away from piers, to discourage seabirds from gathering in areas where they are more likely to be injured. 

We’d be thrilled to reduce the number of birds injured by hooks and other fishing gear!



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