Wildlife officials are weighing new rules at Skyway Fishing Pier to reduce bird entanglement

Street. PETERSBURG — Florida wildlife officials are weighing new rules for hunters at Skyway Fishing Pier State Park after thousands of birds got stuck in fishing gear over the past two years.

Since January 2021, at least 3,300 seabirds have required dock rescue after being tethered or wrapped in fishing gear at the popular fishing spot located next to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission data.

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

In response to rising tangles, wildlife officials are now proposing banning gear with more than one hook, such as treble hooks and sabiki rigs, and limiting anglers to no more than three sets of hook gear within the park. It’s a proposal that has sparked heated debate: Environmentalists claim it’s an important step in protecting seabird species, while many anglers say it’s a premature overrun of one of the state’s first fishing sites.

“Bird-line entanglements have been occurring at Skyway Pier for many years, and seabird-fisherman interactions occur more frequently at this location than at other fishing piers in the state,” said Erica Burgess, a division leader with the Florida Wildlife Commission.

Since 2016, state wildlife experts have tried to reduce tangles through more outreach and education — to no avail. “Despite these efforts, severe entanglements still occur in large numbers at Skyway Pier. For this reason, we are looking at fishing rules options to address this issue,” Burgess said.

Pelicans stand at a fishing pier on the North Sunshine Skyway on Wednesday in St. Petersburg.  Roughly 75% of pier bird rescues are pelicans, and wildlife officials are considering new rules to help prevent them from becoming entangled or attached to fishing gear.
Pelicans stand at a fishing pier on the North Sunshine Skyway on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. Roughly 75% of pier bird rescues are pelicans, and wildlife officials are considering new rules to help prevent them from becoming entangled or attached to fishing gear. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Nearly 150 people followed a two-hour virtual discussion Monday night hosted by the Florida Wildlife Commission, which allowed the public to influence rule proposals before ultimately submitting comments to the commission’s board in February.

Bird advocates have largely praised the proposed rules as a necessary measure required to reduce the number of rescues. But fishermen said the new rules could be a slippery slope to further restrictions on fishing, and more should be done to prevent birds from approaching the pier in the first place, including “hazing” birds to keep them away. Hazing is a technique of keeping birds away from a specific area using tactics such as long range acoustics or visual scare techniques such as lasers.

“We really care about this issue, because I see it as a great prelude to moving more regulations across to other fishing piers. I like to encourage pelicans to come to the Skyway,” said Capt. Dylan Hubbard, president of the Florida Guides Association. “A lot of these regulations have lingering effects. long term recreational fishing.

But environmentalists say the time for that is over, and the issue has reached near-crisis levels. In 2018, for example, the nonprofit Friends of the Pelicans was launched to reduce the number of tangled birds at the pier and across the state. A full-time lifeguard was hired after two years to patrol the pier five days a week and help birds that get stuck or caught in the fishing line. The presence of a rescuer, along with an increase in dock attendance since 2020, has led to an increase in reports of bird entanglement recently, according to wildlife officials and bird rescue groups.

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At least 113,000 people visited the pier between July 2021 and June 30 of this year, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Alexandra Kuchta. That compares with around 80,000 visitors the previous year, although that number was also lower due to pandemic-related closures.

“I think it’s a good first step, and I hope it happened a long time ago,” said Kim Pjay, 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 is workable for hunters. But they have to be willing to compromise. It’s not an option to protect these species, it’s legally required.”

A sign showing steps to prevent entanglement of seabirds is displayed at the North Sunshine Skyway fishing pier near resting pelicans Wednesday in St. Petersburg.
A sign showing steps to prevent entanglement of seabirds is displayed at the North Sunshine Skyway fishing pier near resting pelicans Wednesday in St. Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

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

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

Another reason is the pier’s design: You’re 5 to 10 times more likely to tangle at the pier than at other fishing locations because of how it’s designed, including the perch areas, according to a study by Eckerd College published in September in the animals, an international peer-reviewed journal. Wildlife biologists consider the pier an entanglement “hotspot” for brown pelicans—nearly 75% of the bird rescues there are pelicans, according to the Florida Wildlife Commission.

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

In December 2021, the Naples City Council Restricted fishing from the Naples dock on Sunday after hundreds of pelicans were brought to wildlife rehabilitation facilities after they became entangled in fishing line. So far, the changes have been going well so far, said Lauren Barclay of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, who led the regulations in Naples. But Barkley left the wildlife officials with a word of advice on Monday:

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

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