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Delaying justice for the pelicans.

By the mid-1960s, DDT had decimated the brown pelican population of the Gulf Coast areas of Mississippi and Louisiana. A generation of Gulf Coast residents grew up never seeing the soaring brown pelicans, which had once been plentiful.

After DDT was banned in 1972, the brown pelican was successfully re-introduced, although it still remains on the Endangered Species List. It is now common to see pelicans soaring above coastal waters, diving to catch the primarily non-commercial fish that make up their diet. Unfortunately their impressive fishing abilities proved to be the downfall of 21 brown pelicans slaughtered at a fish farm in Ocean Spring, Mississippi in January. Neighbors who heard gunshots called wildlife officials who found not only dead birds, but pelican carcasses that were evidence that the killings had been going on for some time.

The "crime" that these endangered species committed was being attracted to easy meals at the fish farm, which was not using nets to prevent pelicans from eating its pond-raised fish.

Finally, a year after the slaughter, two suspects have been named in the case: Roger Clark Henderson, former owner of the fish farm, and David Martin Belcher, a former employee. The pair face fines of up to $50,000 and a year in prison on federal charges.

Local Audubon activists are frustrated about the length of time it took to file charges. "Our main concern is that so much time has passed," says Millie Page, conservation chair for the Mississippi Coast Audubon Society. "We're afraid the whole thing will be swept under the rug. If these people are not convicted, it might lead to similar incidents in the future."

A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which investigated the incident, says a backlog in the federal courts may have been responsible for the delay. There have been successful prosecutions in the region under the Endangered Species Act: In 1993 wildlife agents confiscated 83 brown pelican eggs and 118 laughing gull eggs from a fishing boat. The fishermen had taken the eggs off a small island at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where the pelicans had been trying to establish a new nesting ground (instead, they abandoned it). Four fishermen were eventually prosecuted and sentenced to six months in jail. CONTACT: Mississippi Coast Audubon Society, 3512 Celeste Avenue, Moss Point, MS 39563/(601)762-4822.
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Author:Gillette, Becky
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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