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Wildlife officials weigh new rules at Skyway Fishing Pier to curb bird entanglements

More than 3,000 birds were rescued over the past two years after they were entangled in fishing gear at the pier.
Anglers fish along the North Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. Wildlife officials are considering new rules to prevent seabird entanglements at the Skyway Fishing Pier.
Anglers fish along the North Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. Wildlife officials are considering new rules to prevent seabird entanglements at the Skyway Fishing Pier. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Nov. 23|Updated Earlier today

ST. PETERSBURG — Florida wildlife officials are weighing new rules for anglers at Skyway Fishing Pier State Park after thousands of birds were entangled in fishing gear over the past two years.

Since January 2021, at least 3,300 seabirds required rescue from the pier after they were hooked or wrapped in fishing gear at the popular angling spot nestled next to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data.

Of those, at least 1,000 birds needed veterinary care and 500 died.

In response to the rise in entanglements, wildlife officials suggest prohibiting gear with more than one hook, like treble hooks and sabiki rigs, and limiting anglers to no more than three sets of hook-and-line gear within the park. It’s a proposal that has sparked a vivid debate: Environmentalists claim it’s an important step in protecting seabird species, while many anglers say it’s a premature overreach at one the state’s premier fishing spots.

“Entanglements of birds in fishing line has been occurring at Skyway Pier for many years, and seabird-angler interactions at this site occur more frequently than at other fishing piers in the state,” said Erika Burgess, a section leader at Florida wildlife commission.

Since 2016, state wildlife experts have tried reducing entanglements with more outreach and education — to no avail. “Despite those efforts, severe entanglements still occur in large numbers at the Skyway Pier. For this reason, we’re looking for fishing rule options to address this problem,” Burgess said.

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

Nearly 150 people tuned in to a spirted two-hour virtual discussion Monday night hosted by the Florida wildlife commission, which allowed the public to weigh in on the rule proposals before feedback is ultimately brought to the commission’s board in February.

Bird advocates largely applauded the proposed rules as a necessary action needed to reduce the number of rescues. But anglers said the new rules could be a slippery slope for more fishing restrictions, and more should be done to prevent the birds from approaching the pier in the first place, including “hazing” the birds to keep them away. Hazing is a technique to keep birds apart from a designated area by using tactics like long-range acoustics or visual scaring techniques like lasers.

“We really care about this issue, because I see it as a big precursor to moving more regulations across to other fishing piers. I would encourage the hazing or discouragement of pelicans from coming to the Skyway,” said Capt. Dylan Hubbard, president of the Florida Guides Association. “A lot of these regulations have longstanding recreational fishing impacts.”

But, environmentalists say, the time for that has passed, and the issue has reached near-crisis levels. In 2018, for instance, the nonprofit Friends of the Pelicans was launched to reduce the number of bird entanglements at the pier and across the state. A full-time rescuer was even hired two years later to patrol the pier five days a week and assist birds that become snagged or hooked in fishing line. The rescuer’s presence, paired with an increase in pier attendance since 2020, has led to an increase in bird entanglement reports 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 spokesperson Alexandra Kuchta. That compares to about 80,000 visitors a year prior, though that number was also lower due to pandemic-related closures.

“I think it’s a good first step, and I wish it happened long ago,” said Kim Begay, a wild bird rescuer and Friends of the Pelicans vice chair, referring to the state’s proposed rule change. “We need to come to an amicable compromise that’s good for these federally protected birds, and something that’s workable for the anglers. But they have to be willing to compromise. It’s not an option to protect these species, it’s legally required.”

A sign listing steps to prevent seabird entanglement is displayed at the North Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier nearby resting pelicans on Wednesday in St. Petersburg.
A sign listing steps to prevent seabird entanglement is displayed at the North Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier nearby resting pelicans on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

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

There are likely several reasons for the thousands of entanglements, wildlife experts say. For one, the pier is close to pelican breeding colonies, where hundreds of birds convene on nearby mangrove islands. Another reason is the pier’s popularity among anglers. The Skyway Fishing Pier is one of the most visited piers in the state because it doesn’t require an individual saltwater fishing license, according to Florida wildlife biologist Rebecca Schneider. It’s also open 24 hours a day, year-round.

Another reason is the pier’s design: Entanglements at the pier are between five and 10 times more likely than at other fishing locations because of how it was designed, including with its perch areas, according to an Eckerd College study published in September in Animals, an international peer-reviewed journal. Wildlife biologists consider the pier an entanglement “hot spot” for brown pelicans — roughly 75% of the bird rescues there are pelicans, according to the Florida wildlife commission.

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

In December 2021, the Naples City Council restricted fishing from the Naples Pier on Sundays after hundreds of pelicans were brought to wildlife rehabilitation facilities after being caught in fishing line. The changes there have been going well so far, said Lauren Barkley of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which spearheaded 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 fishermen, and work with them,” she told Florida wildlife experts during the virtual meeting. “The clearer the rules are, the more helpful you’ll be with the fishermen — and you guys — in the long run.”

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