Fisherman's tussle with seagull reveals 'horrific' problem on Aussie beaches

A series of photographs have been shared with Yahoo News to highlight the impact of this frowned-upon fishing practice.

An angler cutting his line from a seagull at Pyramid Beach, south of Perth.
Rather than untangle the seagull, the fisherman simply cuts it free. Source: @paulfentonphotography111

At first glance, this striking image appears to show a tussle between a fisherman and a seagull. But there’s a darker story behind this beachside encounter which centres around a practice that animal rescuers describe as "horrific".

Photographer Paul Fenton was strolling along Pyramids Beach south of Perth when he noticed the seabird was entangled in line.

He had no intention of taking pictures of gulls during his visit — he was more interested in the majestic ospreys — a large species of fishing-eating hawk. But the picture he hurriedly snapped of the common beach species was the most powerful shot he took that day.

That's because the fisherman tussling with the gull was about to commit an act that regularly kills and maims seabirds around Australia.

“By the time I saw this happening further down the beach, there was no way I could intervene. It was too far away,” Fenton told Yahoo News. “He was just about to cut the line. So I just reached up and snapped a shot.”

Related: Fishing line in the spotlight as photos reveal baby dolphin’s shocking year in Aussie river

Fenton watched on helplessly as the fisherman severed his line, appearing to show little care for the bird’s welfare. As the angler returned to his rods, the seagull flew into the air still fighting to free itself of metres of discarded cord.

“The bird flew off, still tangled, but it managed to free itself after a few of dips and shakes,” Fenton said.

The image on the left shows the underside of a seagull on a towel. One of it's legs is missing. The other leg clearly has scar marks from line. On the right we can see a seagull with fishing line in its mouth.
Another seagull injured and entangled by fishing line. The birds frequently lose limbs to fishing line and swallow baited hooks. Source: Sharon Manson

While the seagull was lucky to have freed itself from the fishing line, the practice of simply cutting line free when it becomes entangled around birds, or snagged underwater, is having a devastating impact on wildlife.

“I was a hardcore fisherman for many years — all through my teens. 20s and 30s,” Fenton said. “When I got seriously into photography, I really started to see the damage being done by fishing. So I stopped.”

His picture was taken in April, but this week Fenton shared it with volunteers at Western Australian Seabird Rescue who published it online for the first time.

Since January, its members have rescued 120 entangled birds. The problem doesn’t just impact seagulls, they’ve assisted 25 different species including cockatoos, galahs, swans, ducks and magpies. Pelicans are also frequently slashed and entangled by hooks and line. And pets are also frequently affected.

Volunteer rescuer Sharon Manson told Yahoo that fishing line often damages the legs of birds.

“It really is horrific when you see it all every day. Fishing line is why so many seagulls only have one foot, and there are quite a lot that actually have no feet,” she said.

“Quite often it’s fishing line that’s the problem, but sometimes it’s cotton, or even human hair. Because birds have very skinny legs, it doesn’t take much for it to either damage the nerves or cut through and amputate the foot.”

A photograph of a photograph showing a gull with line connecting its beak and foot.
After she zoomed in on the picture, it became clear the seagull's beak was attached to its foot with fishing line. Source: Sharon Manson

Manson has shared a series of disturbing photographs showing the devastating impact of the problem on birds.

One photo taken two weeks ago still causes frustration. “Luckily a photographer saw him. She noticed he couldn’t fly well and his head was down,” Manson said.

“She was wondering why he kept looking at his feet, and when she zoomed in on her camera she could see his beak was connected to his foot with fishing line.

“Luckily we were able to catch him and take it all off.”

Western Australian Seabird Rescue said the problem of entanglement is one that would be easy to reduce.

Most impacted birds are hooked after the line is cut, so its message to fisherman is to instead gently reel the bird in.

“If the hook is superficial and can be removed, do so carefully. Otherwise phone a rescue group, or take it to a vet,” a spokesperson said.

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