Peckish Pelicans and the Power of Grassroots Activism

Pelicans in Israel. Photo Dov Greenblat

During the migration season, more than 50,000 European pelicans pass through Israel as they head towards warmer climates.  Decades ago, the flocks would rest and refuel in the natural fresh water reservoirs that dotted their migration route.  But by the 1970s, the reservoirs had dried up, and the pelicans rerouted to Israel's fish ponds, where the food was plentiful.

As a result, Israel’s fishing industry, specifically the owners of fish hatcheries, suffered enormously, with the pelican feeding frenzies translating into a loss of hundreds of tons of fish annually.  Year after year, fish growers would go to great lengths to chase away the migrating hordes, often employing means that would significantly harm the birds.  In addition, the presence of the pelicans near Israel Air Force bases created a high-risk environment for both the aircraft and the large birds.

In April 2012, the Israeli government laid out a multi-tiered plan that would set the stage for international birdwatching tourism, with a special focus on the protection of the endangered pelican population.  The result was a joint initiative of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Israel Air Force, and the Israel Fish Breeders Association, that aimed to gather the migrating pelicans into safe spaces designated for refueling, thereby reducing the friction between the birds and those negatively impacted by their arrival.

To achieve this, feeding stations, actual pools of fish, were constructed in the Hula and Hefer Valleys to draw the migrating pelicans away from the commercial fish ponds.  While the fish farmers themselves stock the pools with over 50 tons of fish every year, an additional 120 tons of fish are procured from the wild and unplanned harvests.

The feeding project, which costs NIS 600,000 annually and is equally funded by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environmental Protection, has proven incredibly effective.  However, the Ministry of Agriculture has relegated the importance of the initiative in recent years, choosing not transfer its share of the funds to the feeding project’s main account in 2016, and leaving the project out of its budget entirely in 2017.   

Eli Sharir, CEO of the Israel Fish Breeders Association, explained that this denial of funding could not have come at a worse time for Israel’s fish farmers.

“Over the years, the size of the flocks and the number of days the pelicans spend in Israel has increased significantly, and as a result, the financial damage caused to the fish industry keeps expanding. The feeding project aims to keep the pelicans away from the pools and prevent the need for their intensive expulsion. In 2016, the Ministry of Agriculture did not provide funding for the project, and it now appears that this section is not included in the Ministry's budget for 2017. Since we were assured that the money exists, the fish breeders were prepared with dedicated stocks for the feeding project, beyond the demand and consumption targets of the Israeli market.  This is a loss of millions of shekels to breeders and farms,” Sharir said.

Pelicans at the Hefer reservoir. Photo Dov Greenblat

“The pelicans present an acute problem for us and the organization of fish breeders allocates special budgets for the development of innovative and harmless means for their removal. It is not clear to me why the Ministry of Agriculture refuses to transfer its part in this project, which is unique to the State of Israel and is an important tool that enables continuous learning about the impact of feeding pelicans during the period they spend in Israel.”

Initially, the Ministry of Agriculture responded dismissively.

“It is not the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture to be a partner in the feeding of hundreds of millions of birds, just as we do not feed the jackals and wolves who prey on cattle and sheep in northern Israel. With the Ministry's limited budget, funding farmers is given a priority over feeding migratory birds.”

When the Fish Breeders Associated realized that the project would not be operating in its full capacity during the peak of migration season, damaging Israel’s economy and putting thousands of pelicans at risk, they immediately contacted SPNI for assistance.  SPNI's Director of Nature Protection Division, Nir Papai, sprang into action, issuing an official statement that addressed the Minister of Agriculture directly.

“We have learned that the Ministry of Agriculture does not intend to allocate funds to the pelicans feeding project this year, thus putting the entire project at risk.  In accordance with the pre-existing agreements, we request that you approve the immediate transfer of the NIS 300,000 in order to maintain the livelihood of farmers and protect the birds,” Papai said in the statement.  “In addition, we request that the project's funding be included as an annual fixed budget item, enabling it to run continuously, without mishaps and delays every year.”

SPNI then launched a widespread campaign, calling on the public to support the appeal by signing a petition, sending letters directly to the Ministry of Agriculture, and getting the word out via social media.  Within 48 hours, thousands of Israelis had signed the petition and hundreds sent e-mails to the Ministry, and SPNI’s call to action on Facebook had gone viral, reaching over 90,000 people around the world and receiving just under 11,000 Likes.

Pelicans. Photo Dov Greenblat

In response to the public pressure, the Ministry of Agriculture announced that it would “fund the project for an additional year, due to former agreements and despite reservations to its necessity.”

While the Ministry of Agriculture is still unsure as to “whether the feeding project is assisting the farmers or causing further damage by prolonging the pelican's stay in Israel,” SPNI has urged them to consider participating in a roundtable discussion with all stakeholders to determine what would be required to maintain the project in the years to come and what kind of research would need to be conducted in order to prove the effectiveness of the project.

In the meantime, SPNI and its supporters are celebrating their successful grassroots activism and the huge ecological and economic win for Israel, as the thousands of pelicans set to migrate through Israel this winter will be able to safely refuel from their long journeys without disturbing local fish hatcheries.