Invisible snares: Stray fishing line poses constant danger to seabirds

A cleanup day finds the remains of birds tangled in monofilament.

The pelican could've withered away like the rest. Mark Rachal reached into the mangrove branches and secured its wings, beak and feet. While Rachal held on, Melinda Spall approached the bird and saved it with a snip.

The young pelican was trapped in the mangroves in a tangle of monofilament fishing line, a hook in its neck. Motoring up to Dog Leg Key, a strip of mangroves in Boca Ciega Bay near the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center, you would think that this nesting ground was simply a sanctuary. But laced among the mangrove branches were perhaps thousands of feet of fishing line, what Ann Paul, a regional coordinator with Audubon Florida, called "invisible snares."

While news of sewage releases into Tampa Bay waters and Red Tide have grabbed headlines in recent weeks, some locals focused Friday on minimizing the effects of another perennial problem for wildlife. When anglers cut their lines after a wild cast, or accidentally hook a bird, the line doesn't disappear. It stays.

Eventually, animals entangled in it die.

Five people with the Audubon Society and Tampa Bay Watch found at least 11 dead birds Friday on Dog Leg Key. Most of the remains were just leg bones and maybe a feather or two in a tangle of fishing line, dangling from a branch. One bird had just died recently and hadn't yet decomposed.

"They're just sitting in the heat dehydrating," said Rachal, a sanctuary manager for Audubon Florida. "It's a pretty nasty way to go."

The finds are nothing new. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission tells fishermen that monofilament fishing line can last about 600 years.

A wildlife commission spokeswoman said the agency receives hundreds of reports of tangled up animals each year — anything from manatees to fish. Some animals, such as dolphins and sea turtles, have been found dead with fishing line and tackle in their stomachs.

This is the 23rd year Tampa Bay Watch and Audubon Florida have coordinated a bird nesting island clean-up. Volunteers and staff sweep into 35 different locations across the Tampa Bay area each year to comb through habitat. The cleanup is sponsored by the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund and Restore America's Estuaries.

This year's cleanup started Sept. 24 and ends Sunday. Spall, environmental specialist for Tampa Bay Watch, didn't have a count Friday on how many feet of line volunteers were able to reclaim so far, but she put last year's figure at an estimated 13,000 feet. That's on top of the estimated 1 million feet of line volunteers collected from the Tampa Bay area's 150 "Mono Tube" recycling stations last year.

The line is sent to the Berkley Fishing Conservation Institute in Iowa, which melts it so it can be turned into other plastic products.

On Friday, the search for line on Dog Leg Key got off to a slow start. Five people — four with the Audubon Society and Spall, with Tampa Bay Watch — got out of a 20-foot Kencraft Bayrider on the east side of the key, broke into two groups and headed west on either side of the strip.

After snatching a few strands of fishing line, the group found its first dead bird, or what was left of it. One bare leg bone dangling from a branch.

"This bird hung here until it died," Paul said plainly.

After the grim find, more followed.

"This stuff is just sitting here in the trees waiting for them," Paul said.

They found bags full of trash, fishing line and tackle.

Finding so much was good, because coming back empty-handed would've meant a wasted trip. But it was a sure sign there is more work to do to prevent stray fishing line problems in the first place.

Contact Jack Suntrup at [email protected] or (727) 893-8092. Follow @JackSuntrup.