City Hall plans to install a net underneath the Santa Monica Pier to prevent pigeons from roosting and pooping in the water, which city officials believe is party responsible for poor water quality. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITY HALL — A recent controversial move to install a bird-deterring net underneath the Santa Monica Pier came after a series of studies blamed pigeons for fouling the bay.

In a report to the City Council last week, Public Works Director Lee Swain explains how the department reached the decision to net the area beneath the pier, believing it will reduce the roosting sites and keep bacterial levels in the bay below requirements set by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. The water in the area has long been considered one of the worst in the state, annually ranked as being among the dirtiest in Heal the Bay’s Beach Report Card.

Animal rights activists have blasted City Hall, saying installing the net will amount to torture for the birds, who will either be trapped or will try relentlessly to return to familiar nesting sites.

Swain cited several studies that have named pigeons as one of the sources of bacteria in the bay, including a 2006 report by Heal the Bay that identified the pond in front of the pier storm drain as the predominant source of fecal bacteria in the beach, noting that “pigeons are a definite source of fecal bacteria and the elimination or reduction of roosting sites in the inter-tidal zone area would help reduce fecal bacterial densities in the surf zone.”

“Some of the studies indicate that there are several potential sources and we are trying to eliminate or at least minimize all of these potential sources until we are sure we can stay in compliance,” Swain said.

The council in July approved a $107,758 contract with Bird Busters to put up the net, which will run the length and width of the pier. Several weeks later, a group of animal rights activist staged a small protest before a council meeting in mid-August, hoping to persuade city officials to abandon the plan, which they said would kill pigeons.

Once the net is installed, the pigeons that remain will starve to death, while those on the outside will kill themselves from the exhaustion of trying to return to their nests, according to the activists, which includes Santa Monica-based Voice for the Animals Foundation.

The organization said that there has not been a single documented case of a human disease being traced to a pigeon or its droppings.

Melya Kaplan, the founder of Voice for the Animals Foundation, said that some of the studies cited in the city report about the general health hazard posed to humans by pigeon droppings are based on assumptions and not fact.

Dr. Red Enright, a lawyer and pigeon expert, has refuted claims made by Bird Busters on its Web site that the bacterial agents found in pigeon droppings are responsible for diseases including histoplasmosis, arguing that the histoplasmoid organism cannot survive in the body of any bird because of its high body temperature. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, histoplasmosis is a disease that affects the lungs and can be fatal if left untreated.

To back the plan, city staff has pointed to other studies that have identified pigeon droppings as the source of poor water quality, including one by the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Hawaii, which linked poor water quality in the Hanauma Bay to soil sand and bird fecal matter, and a report by RBF Consulting earlier this year that identified the pier storm drain, sanitary sewer overflows and birds as potential contributors.

City Hall and the University of California Los Angeles this summer conducted a study analyzing bacteria concentrations in the sand and water underneath the pier. An initial DNA analysis indicated that animals were the source of bacteria.

Swain said the impact of the net to pigeons will be minimized as the nesting sites will be examined in the weeks before the installation. Existing nests will be monitored daily for fledgling time and any new nests will be removed.

The nets will also come with maintenance zippers that will remain open until all nests are abandoned, after which they will be removed.

“We’re trying to take care of this issue in the most humane way possible,” Swain said.

Animal rights activists remain skeptical.

“Bird Busters is an exterminating company, they are not rescuers,” Kaplan said. “Exterminating companies are not going to be careful about baby birds.”

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