Even as storm clouds roll across the bay, six pelicans mill outside the Pier Bait House, waiting. Thunder is rumbling. So are the pelicans' tummies. The Bait House, a freestanding fishing-needs kiosk on the St. Petersburg Municipal Pier, is well-known for selling fish to folks who feed a regular group of pelicans. At $5 for five fish, feeding has become so regular that a half-dozen birds never leave that part of the pier. When it's not about to storm, tourists often walk up to within arm's length of them. But a new rule from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will make the practice illegal across the state beginning July 1.
Feeding pelicans will become a second-degree misdemeanor, spokeswoman Karen Parker said, punishable by a $500 fine or up to 60 days in jail.
"Pelicans can become so used to their daily 'free' meals that they won't migrate south during the winter, and as a result become sick, suffer frostbite on their feet or die," research biologist James Rodgers said in a press release.
Enforcement will not focus on individuals, but on companies and organizations that dump large amounts of fish in areas accessible to pelicans or that sponsor pelican feedings.
"This is going to be an expansive education program," Parker said. "They're not going to rush out on (July) the first and start handing out tickets."
Businesses like the Bait House will be particularly monitored and might be hit hard by the law.
Although the Bait House also sells fishing equipment, guides fishing expeditions and leases land for hunting, managers called the wildlife commission with concerns about their livelihood, Parker said.
Bait Shop employees declined to comment on how the new rules will affect business, but its Web site makes clear that it will have an impact.
A large banner entreats visitors to feed the birds. "Pelican feeding is one of the most popular activities at the Pier. Get up close and personal with these historic birds!" the page reads.
For decades, conservationists have kept an eye on pelican safety. The highly social birds were placed on the endangered species list in 1970 after pesticide runoff almost drove them to extinction.
By the early 1990s, the pelican had rebounded to normal levels.
Some residents will miss the chance to get close to the birds, but most are glad pelicans will be more protected.
"I think it's brilliant," said Jaime Smythe, a St. Petersburg resident. "How many times have you seen a pelican choking on a bone?"
Andrew Dunn can be reached at (727) 893-8150 or firstname.lastname@example.org.