Untangling a mess

Chico biologist, concerned for birds, brings in fishing line recycling

Becki Brunelli, left, explains the new fishing line recycling bins at California Park to lake visitor Nola Taylor.

Becki Brunelli, left, explains the new fishing line recycling bins at California Park to lake visitor Nola Taylor.

Photo by Josh Cozine

For two weeks in the heat of last summer, Becki Brunelli, with a neighbor’s help, tracked an injured goose around their neighborhood overlooking California Park Lake.

The bird had become entangled with discarded fishing line, an occurrence with which Brunelli has become overly familiar. This victim was a female Canada goose, recently ostracized by her flock, whose legs had become so tightly wrapped in the fishing line that it struggled to walk.

This goose was only the most recent in a string of birds Brunelli had found over the years tangled up in fishing line near the lake.

“It gets caught up in the birds’ nests, or feet, or neck, or wings, and it doesn’t break apart or biodegrade,” she said.

Brunelli, who teaches biology at Chico State and has a doctorate in animal behavior, said she’s counted five birds in as many years that have become caught in discarded line at the small lake.

Eventually, a California Fish and Wildlife biologist caught the goose. Brunelli removed the fishing line, which had become deeply embedded in both of the bird’s legs. She then treated the injured areas with antibacterial sprays, and released the goose, expecting it to recover.

Still, for Brunelli, it was one tangled bird too many. She decided it was time to do something. Looking for assistance and a possible solution, she reached out to the Altacal Audubon Society, the local chapter of the national group for Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties.

Coincidentally, Altacal’s Dawn Garcia had the same interest. Garcia, an Oroville resident who was serving as the organization’s conservation chair at the time, heard about Brunelli’s call and recognized the problem all too well.

“People don’t think about it,” Garcia said, referring to discarded fishing line. “There’s not this connection to the damage it can do. They don’t think about it until they see what it can do.”

She also knew of a potential solution. She told Brunelli about the California Fishing Line Recycling Program, a statewide effort under California State Parks’ Division of Boating and Waterways and the California Coastal Commission to reduce fishing line waste around California waterways.

The recycling program started in 2010, with partners including the BoatUS Foundation and Keep the Delta Clean program. It now comprises a network of over 250 periscope-shaped PVC-pipe receptacles built for collecting waste fishing line, strategically placed along heavy-use sections of waterways in participating areas. Each of the collection receptacles comes paired with signs informing people of the damage improperly discarded fishing line can have on local wildlife and the environment.

Vivian Matuk, a program manager in the state boating and waterways division, has been around since the program’s inception. She said the bins and accompanying signs have been making quite the difference. Over 1,600 pounds of fishing line has been collected.

“It may sound like a small number, but you have to remember how thin [fishing line] is,” Matuk said. Instead of focusing on weight, she likes to describe the amount recycled another way: “It’s enough to stretch a fishing line from San Francisco to Massachusetts.”

Local organizers collect fishing line out of the bins and send it, via preaddressed box, to a recycling center in Iowa. The firm repurposes the line, often into other fishing products such as spools and tackle boxes—sometimes even benches.

Matuk says she’s received feedback from participants that areas with fishing line recycle bins nearby are cleaner overall. She attributes this to the fact that the program requires a trash can next to each bin, along with the informational signs, which dissuade people from throwing regular waste into the fishing line recycle bins. The signs also increase awareness of the importance of keeping a clean, healthy environment.

For Brunelli, after connecting with Audubon, the next step was to seek permission from the California Park Homeowners’ Association to place fishing line recycling bins along the lakeside.

She presented an in-depth PowerPoint presentation to the HOA board detailing her history of finding injured and distressed birds, along with what she had learned about the state recycling program. Hoping for just a “yes” to go forward with planning, Brunelli got instant approval to proceed with installation—plus support she hadn’t requested.

“They called it a no-brainer,” she said. “They even volunteered to pay the maintenance and installation costs.”

Good news kept rolling in: The Altacal Audubon Society agreed to fund Brunelli $1,000 for materials to build the bins and print the informational signs.

Garcia contacted the Redbud Audubon Society in Lake County, which already had built and installed bins in a number of areas around Clear Lake, and accompanied Brunelli on a day-long bin-construction trip in January. They aimed to have their bins ready this summer.

They’ve installed five bins around California Park Lake over the past month, with a sixth in progress. Meanwhile, Brunelli said she’s helping others interested in fishing line recycling at Horseshoe Lake and Aquatic Park in Paradise, while exploring possibilities at her hometown Shasta Lake.

None of the California Park bins has been filled or measured; time will tell how clean they’ll help keep the lake.

Already, Brunelli says, the lake is safer for at least one resident: The goose from last year—endearingly dubbed “Lucky”—has returned, free of fishing line, and now a mother to healthy goslings.