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Wildlife officials weigh new rules at Skyway Fishing Pier to curb bird entanglements

ST. PETERSBURG — Florida conservationists are considering new rules for anglers at Skyway Fishing Pier State Park after thousands of birds became entangled in fishing gear over the past two years.

At least 3,300 seabirds have had to be rescued from the pier since January 2021 after being hooked or wrapped in fishing gear at the popular fishing spot next to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, according to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Of those, at least 1,000 birds required veterinary care and 500 died.

In response to the increase in entanglements, conservationists are now proposing to ban gear with more than one hook, such as treble hooks and sabiki hooklengths, and limit anglers to no more than three sets of hook-and-line tackle in the park. It’s a proposal that’s sparked lively debate: Environmentalists argue it’s an important step in protecting seabird species, while many fishermen say it’s a premature overdraft of one of the state’s most important fishing spots.

“Bird entanglements in fishing lines have been common at Skyway Pier for many years, and interactions between seabirds and fishermen are more common at this location than at other fishing piers in the state,” said Erika Burgess, section leader with the Florida Wildlife Commission.

Since 2016, state wildlife experts have tried to ease entanglements with more help and education, but to no avail. “Despite those efforts, serious entanglements are still occurring in large numbers at Skyway Pier. For this reason, we are looking at fisheries regulation options to address this issue,” said Burgess.

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Pelicans line up at the North Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier in St. Petersburg on Wednesday. Nearly 75% of bird rescues on the pier are pelicans, and conservationists are considering new rules to prevent them from becoming entangled in or hooked on fishing gear. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Nearly 150 people tuned in for a two-hour animated Monday night virtual discussion hosted by the Florida Wildlife Commission that allowed the public to weigh in on the rule proposals before feedback finally goes to the committee’s board in February. is presented.

Bird advocates largely applauded the proposed rules as a necessary action needed to reduce the number of rescues. But fishermen said the new rules could be a slippery slope for more fishing restrictions, and more needs to be done to prevent the birds from approaching the pier, including “hazing” the birds to keep them away. Hazing is a technique of keeping birds out of a designated area by using tactics such as long range acoustics or visual deterrent techniques such as lasers.

“We really care about this issue because I see it as a big precursor to moving more regulation to other fishing piers. I would encourage hazing or discouraging pelicans from coming to the Skyway,” said Captain Dylan Hubbard, president of the Florida Guides Association. “Many of these regulations have long-lasting implications for recreational fisheries.”

But environmentalists say the time for that has passed and the issue is close to crisis level. For example, in 2018, the nonprofit Friends of the Pelicans was launched to help reduce bird entanglements on the pier and throughout the state. Two years later, a full-time rescuer was even hired to patrol the pier five days a week and help birds that get caught or caught in fishing line. The rescuer’s presence, coupled with an increase in the number of piers since 2020, has recently led to an increase in reports of bird entanglements, according to conservationists and bird rescue groups.

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At least 113,000 people visited the pier between July 2021 and June 30 this year, according to Alexandra Kuchta, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. That compares to about 80,000 visitors a year earlier, though that number was also down due to pandemic-related closures.

“I think it’s a good first step, and I wish it had happened a long time ago,” said Kim Begay, a wild bird rescuer and vice president of Friends of the Pelicans, referring to the state’s proposed rule change. “We need to come to an amicable compromise that is good for these federally protected birds, and something that is workable for the fishermen. But they must be willing to compromise. It is not an option to protect these species, it is a legal obligation.”

A sign outlining the steps to avoid entanglement of seabirds is displayed at the North Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier near resting pelicans on Wednesday in St. Petersburg.
A sign outlining the steps to avoid entanglement of seabirds is displayed at the North Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier near resting pelicans on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

“We feel that whatever the state is asking for is reasonable,” Begay said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s a good compromise.”

There are likely several reasons for the thousands of entanglements, wildlife experts say. First, the pier is close to pelican breeding colonies, where hundreds of birds congregate on nearby mangrove islands. Another reason is the popularity of the pier among anglers. The Skyway Fishing Pier is one of the most visited piers in the state because it doesn’t require an individual saltwater fishing license, according to Florida wildlife biologist Rebecca Schneider. It is also open 24 hours a day, all year round.

Another reason is the design of the pier: Entanglements on the pier are between five and 10 times more likely than other fishing locations because of the design, including the perches, according to an Eckerd College study published in September. Animals, an international peer-reviewed journal. Wildlife biologists consider the pier an entanglement site for brown pelicans — about 75% of the birds rescued there are pelicans, according to the Florida Wildlife Commission.

Several members of the fishing community known as Skyway Misfits, which has more than 83,000 followers on Instagram, also tuned in to oppose the regulations. Tensions ran high on Monday (at one point, a fisherman interrupted a Friends of the Pelicans member by yelling “bird f — er!”). But for the most part, the state, fishermen and conservationists agreed that the entanglement problem has risen to new heights in recent years. And as some have noted, it’s also not the first time that fishing regulations have been proposed to curb pelican entanglements in Florida.

In December 2021, the City Council of Naples limited fishing from Naples Pier on Sunday after hundreds of pelicans were taken to wildlife sanctuaries after being caught in fishing line. Changes there have been going well so far, said Lauren Barkley of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, who led regulation in Naples. But Barkley left conservationists with some advice on Monday:

“Make sure you keep a balance with the fishermen and work with them,” she told Florida wildlife experts during the virtual meeting. “The clearer the rules are, the more useful you’ll be with the fishermen — and you — in the long run.”

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