BRANDON — It's a haunting sight to come upon, and after so many replays a wildlife warden loses count.
Birds — or the skeletal remains of birds — dangle eerily above the ground as though in a shock scene from a horror film. Only a close look reveals the killer: a strand of ultrathin fishing line tangled around a leg or a wing, tethering it to a tree branch.
The scenes that really get to Ann Paul, veteran of more than two decades of island patrol in Tampa Bay for Audubon Florida, are the ones with a parent bird suspended only a few feet from its nest. She pictures the adult, unable to fly away to find food or reach its chicks, forced to hear the hungry cries of starving offspring or watch as a predator makes a meal of the next generation.
"They'll hang there helpless, and they'll hang for hours. There's nothing they can do," Paul said, adding that the cause of death is usually dehydration.
"I think that's a pretty tragic situation. Here you have a healthy adult doing all the things birds need to do — find a mate, make a nest, raise its young — and now it's doomed to a slow and agonizing death."
Avian advocates are appealing to fishermen to help curb the death toll by changing some common practices on fishing piers. In addition, Audubon Florida has teamed up with the Tampa and Manatee County Audubon chapters to produce a brochure with photos and step-by-step instructions on how to reel in and remove fishing hooks from brown pelicans, the species most often ensnared at locations like the Sunshine Skyway fishing piers.
For two decades, local wildlife advocates have staged fishing line cleanups and provided receptacles for safe disposal of monofilament line at popular fishing spots.
Still the birds die. No scientific estimates have been made, but Paul is certain the death toll is in the thousands each year across Florida. Often a monofilament strand snatched from a fishing pier will ensnare not only the bird trailing it but other critters as well.
"I think it's much more of an impact on wildlife than any of us ever realized," she said. "Up until recently … we didn't realize the problem is starting at the (fishing) piers."
Seabirds and wading birds of all kinds, including many at risk of extinction, routinely fall prey to stray monofilament that a hooked pelican carries away when a fisherman cuts the line, Paul said. Brown pelicans are particularly susceptible because of their predilection for mooching leftover bait or unwanted fish parts at the piers' cleaning stations. With a nearly 7-foot wingspan, the birds can appear daunting to reel in and assist, but actually they are one of the easiest seabirds to handle, Paul said.
One trick to prevent accidentally hooking a bird is to shake the fishing line periodically, so that the sun's rays make it more easily seen by a pelican soaring past a row of rods hanging over the water, Paul said. She also suggested fishermen wait a few minutes to cast if a bird is close by. Anglers can also help by covering bait buckets, filleting their catch away from the pier and properly disposing of fish scraps, she said.
Lee Fox, who has nursed countless injured seabirds at rehabilitation stations in Pinellas and Sarasota counties, said young pelicans are the most common fishing line casualties she has seen.
"Pelicans bring baby pelicans to the piers, and that's where the injuries are happening," Fox said. "That's where they bring the kids, and they think that's where they get their food."
Now operating a rehab center, Save All Birds, in Wimauma, Fox is the only licensed seabird rehabilitator in Hillsborough County on a list maintained by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. But she said she is not currently set up to nurse many pelicans, and she is focusing more on birds of prey and common inland species like the sandhill crane. Even those birds occasionally show up at rehab injured by fishing line.
Last month, Fox released a great blue heron brought to her because its leg was ensnared. The bird can fly but Fox predicted it will always walk with a limp.
Jamie Foster, who runs bait shops on the two Skyway fishing piers, said a staff member has been assigned to answer calls from fishermen who accidentally snag birds and a safe holding area has been created for injured birds waiting for rescue. She and Tampa Audubon volunteer Sandy Reed of Valrico have organized a task force to come up with additional measures.
Initial efforts have focused on major fishing piers, but Reed said birds fall prey to fishing line at Lettuce Lake and E.G. Simmons county parks, as well as other popular fishing sites.
"I feel like we've made a lot of progress," Reed said. "But at the same time, we're only scratching the surface of this enormous problem."
Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at [email protected]