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Florida wildlife official urges Skyway anglers, bird rescuers to ‘work together’ to stop bird snags

Thousands of birds needed rescue from fishing gear entanglements at the popular pier over the past two years.
A fisherman looks at pelicans sitting by the South Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, in St.Petersburg. Nearly 75% of bird rescues at the pier are pelicans, and wildlife officials are considering new rules to prevent their entanglement.
A fisherman looks at pelicans sitting by the South Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, in St.Petersburg. Nearly 75% of bird rescues at the pier are pelicans, and wildlife officials are considering new rules to prevent their entanglement. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Jan. 5|Updated Jan. 6

The chairperson of Florida’s wildlife agency is urging unity and participation between anglers and bird advocates as tensions run high about how to stop seabirds from becoming entangled in fishing gear at the Skyway Fishing Pier.

Roughly 3,300 seabirds needed to be rescued from the popular angling spot since January 2021 after they were hooked or wrapped in fishing gear, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data.

The wildlife commission is proposing new rules for anglers, a move that some bird rescuers say is too lax and won’t fully solve the problem — while the fishing community calls the proposal an overreach.

Now, after passionate public feedback in late November from both anglers and environmental groups alike, the agency’s chairperson wants all Skyway pier stakeholders to “come to the table” to find an amicable solution.

“The frequency of entanglements resulting in severe injury or death of seabirds is increasing,” Chairperson Rodney Barreto wrote in a letter Wednesday to anglers and pelican advocacy groups.

“Over the next few months, there will be multiple opportunities for your input and engagement to determine a suitable course of action that will address this complex issue,” Barreto wrote. “We ask our management partners, anglers, pelican rescue organizations, and other interested stakeholders to come to the table and work together to develop a solution for pelicans and anglers.”

Pelicans sit by the South Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, in St.Petersburg. Nearly 75% of bird rescues at the pier are pelicans, and wildlife officials are considering new rules to prevent their entanglement.
Pelicans sit by the South Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, in St.Petersburg. Nearly 75% of bird rescues at the pier are pelicans, and wildlife officials are considering new rules to prevent their entanglement. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

The letter comes after Barreto, during a December commission meeting, said he wanted to “send a clear message from the commission that we have to get this resolved.” Barreto said he wants draft rules presented at the commission’s February meeting.

In the span of two years, at least 1,000 birds needed veterinary care and 500 have died because of entanglements at the pier located beside the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, state data shows.

The wildlife commission proposes prohibiting gear with more than one hook, such as treble hooks and sabiki rigs, and limiting anglers to no more than three sets of hook-and-line gear within the park, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

A coalition of environment groups wants to take the proposed regulations a step further, such as allowing only one fishing pole per person and closing the northern end of the south pier to angling, according to a December letter sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Organizations including the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Pelicans, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the Humane Society of the United States signed on to the letter.

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Many anglers who regularly fish at the pier oppose any new regulations outright. Several members of the Skyway Misfits, an online fishing community that boasts millions of followers on social media, tuned in to a Nov. 21 virtual meeting to oppose the potential rule changes. Several members took issue with how bird rescuers lure injured birds for their capture, and claimed the practice attracts more birds. Meanwhile, bird advocacy groups such as Friends of the Pelicans say angling rule changes are overdue.

“Treble hooks are extremely damaging,” Kim Begay, vice chairperson of Friends of the Pelicans, told the commission. “The toll that is being taken is completely unacceptable.”

If new angling rules were ultimately adopted, they should expire after one year, according to Capt. Dylan Hubbard, the president of the Florida Guides Association. That way, the commission’s biologists, anglers and environmentalists can examine whether regulations are working to prevent bird entanglements.

“Something like that would be much easier to swallow,” Hubbard told the Tampa Bay Times in mid-December. “Nothing hurts me as a fisherman more than a bird flying away with fishing line. But it’s an educational problem: New fishermen will hook a pelican and they don’t know how to act.”

At a December commission meeting, top wildlife officials, including Barreto, agreed that bird tangles are a serious issue with no easy solution. Barreto reiterated this week that something needs to be done.

“It is the Commission’s duty to ensure responsible recreation and enjoyment of Florida’s wildlife and fishery resources while minimizing the likelihood of severe harm these activities may pose to wildlife,” Barreto wrote in the letter Wednesday.

Below: Read Chairman Rodney Barreto’s full letter to Skyway Fishing Pier stakeholders

More Times coverage on the Skyway Pier

Related: Wildlife officials weigh new rules at Skyway Fishing Pier to curb bird entanglements
Related: Florida environmentalists want feds to intervene in Skyway Fishing Pier bird snags
Related: How to save the pelicans on the Skyway fishing pier | Editorial