Federal authorities have taken over an investigation into whether imperiled birds were harmed during a film shoot off Shell Key, ratcheting up inquiries into the actions of a helicopter pilot who admits he got too close to the preserve last week.
Environmentalists complained that a nesting ground for black skimmers was destroyed by crews shooting Sea-Doo watercraft advertisements last Wednesday. The imperiled birds build their nests in the sand.
The damage was caused when a pilot hovered too close to the shore while dropping video to crews below.
In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday, pilot Preston Ewen said he "made a mistake."
"Realistically, should I have been there? Absolutely not," said Ewen, 62, of Kissimmee.
He said he has not yet been contacted by investigators.
The incident has prompted environmentalists to question how the county treats the preserves. To protect the wildlife, such as the black skimmer, the county two years ago banned alcohol and pets from Shell Key.
"We're stopping a guy from drinking a beer … but this goes on?" said Cathy Harrelson, a Suncoast Sierra Club leader who helped review the protections.
County records show each of the three film crews involved indicated helicopters would be used when they requested permits from the county film office. A host of officials from cities, police agencies and parks and environmental departments were notified.
No one from the county supervised the shoot.
County Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel said she was surprised to find out the helicopter was allowed, and called for a review by county staff. "I think they better get busy and do something about it," Seel said.
Scrutiny escalated Tuesday when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the lead of the investigation from state and county officials.
The birds are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, leading the federal wildlife service to investigate, spokesman Tom MacKenzie said. Violations can lead to as much as a $15,000 fine, six months in jail and five years of probation. Those are higher than state penalties.
Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating whether Ewen operated the helicopter in an unsafe manner, including whether he maintained a safe altitude. FAA standards allow helicopters to dip below the typical 500-foot minimum if no person or property faces harm.
Ewen said he crossed over the Sunshine Skyway, where other filming was going on, to deliver video to another crew. When one part of the barrier island was too busy, he decided to approach a public access area on the northeast, where the black skimmers nest. Ewen said his helicopter hovered at about 100 feet for about five seconds. He said he didn't see any birds fleeing, but environmentalists say the helicopter kicked up winds that disturbed the nests and scared the sensitive birds.
Any slight intrusion, like an eagle snatching an egg from a nest, can cause an entire flock to abandon a nesting site.
The county says the three firms were given maps highlighting the preserve. A county environmental lands official, Pam Leasure, also warned the film office May 19 to "make sure they respect the beach nesting birds."
But Ewen, who operates his own company, said he never received those maps. An official with Group Mojo, an Oregon firm that received Ewen's video drop, declined to comment Tuesday. A Sea-Doo spokesman said proper procedures were followed.
Ewen said he had an aviation map, but because he could see Shell Key, he didn't look at the map. The aviation map noted it was a preserve in "very tiny print," he said.
At the time of the drop, Ewen said he was wearing his glasses, which his pilot certification requires. And what he saw — few if any birds, little damage — left him irked at environmentalists' charges he damaged a 440-bird colony.
"It just seems to me they want to exaggerate things to get better control of the property," Ewen said. "I can understand that, but don't make me the scapegoat."
The Environmental Science Forum, a county advisory board that Harrelson co-chairs, will look into last week's incident, possibly as soon as its July 8 meeting. The County Commission will get a report, too.
County Administrator Bob LaSala said he had not yet read a report on the events, but suggested policy changes could be in order. "It seems to me if we are to grant permits for activities like this in sensitive areas, then provisions need to be made for oversight," said LaSala, adding that activities could be moved to less risky sites.
But he wasn't ready to rule out similar shootings in the future. A 2009 filming went off without problems. "There had been prior activity without any consequence," he said. "It's kind of like there's been prior drilling in the gulf without incident."
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.