St. Petersburg water resources experts are trying to figure out what’s causing dozens of pelicans in Coffee Pot Bayou and a lake in the Riviera Bay neighborhood to get sick and die.

  • 70 ill pelicans collected since last Wednesday; half have died
  • Pelicans found in the area of Coffee Pot Bayou, Riviera Bay neighborhood lake
  • Water experts suspect fish kills could be to blame
  • Neighbors worry summer's sewage dump may have contributed

“We’re hiring a consulting firm to look at the water quality,” said Water Resources Interim Director John Palenchar. “It is a mystery in some sense. We know that there was a fish kill over in Riviera Lake.”

Last week, Bay News 9 reported on that thermal inversion fish kill that for the first time also included pelicans. Over the weekend, dozens more sick pelicans were also spotted at bird island in Coffee Pot Bayou.

Palenchar said avian botulism is often associated with fish kills and could be the source of the problem.

“This avian botulism can be present and cause some of the symptoms that we are seeing in the pelicans,” he said. “We’re not sure whether that’s what’s causing the birds illnesses.”

We contacted the city, the Owl’s Nest Sanctuary for Wildlife and the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary to try and get a total count of sick pelicans.

So far, about 70 pelicans have been collected since last Wednesday and half of those have died.

“Hopefully, it’s close to over,” said environmentalist Lorraine Margeson. “But we still have sick birds.”

Palenchar said it’s hopefully a one-off incident that’s correcting itself.

“The fish kill got cleaned up. We’re not seeing any more dead fish,” he said. “So, with the removal of that source or vector perhaps of the disease, the pelicans are now getting healthy again.”

Resident Mary Miller wonders if the more than 200 million gallons of sewage the city of St. Pete dumped into the Bay last summer could be contributing to the problem.

“We need to approach the sewage situation,” she said. “We need real data here. We can’t just sit by and wait for the tide to wash this out.”

Palenchar said it’s something else that’s causing the pelicans to get sick and not the sewage discharge.

“When you have a flushing system like this, anything that could’ve been here has been gone for so many months,” he said. “That any correlation would be wild speculation not based on any science that I’ve ever seen.”  

Margeson said she’s skeptical of that claim and wants a certified testing lab doing year round water tests.

“I do not believe it. I will tell you that if you talk to the county, they fully expect most of our sea grass beds to die by next year,” she said. “This is going to be long-term ramifications from that much garbage going into the Bay.”

The water resources department said initial test results from water samples have shown no abnormalities. The consulting firm will conduct further testing. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission said their lab in Gainesville is doing necropsies on the pelicans and they hope to have those results in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, the city has posted signs along the affected areas warning residents not the play, swim or fish in the water.