As Florida wildlife officials grapple with how to reduce the amount of seabirds becoming entangled in fishing gear at the busy Skyway Fishing Pier State Park, new rules proposed Wednesday night attempt to find a middle ground between anglers and bird advocates who, for months, have disagreed on a solution.
Erika Burgess, a Florida wildlife section leader, wasted no time addressing the differences in opinion at the start of the virtual Skyway Pier discussion.
“Most everyone that’s joining us tonight feels passionately about this topic, but not everyone sees eye-to-eye,” Burgess told the audience of about 120 people, including anglers, environmentalists and state employees. “That makes this a very challenging and contentious issue.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission then unveiled its updated proposal to curb bird tangles: They are considering prohibiting fishing gear with multiple hooks, like sabiki rigs and treble hooks, between November and March each year. More than 1,500 seabirds needed rescue from entanglements between November 2021 and March 2022, and the proposed gear ban would coincide with the season when tangles peak each year.
The commission also wants to limit anglers to no more than two fishing poles in the water at a time, and also prohibit the use of sabiki rigs at a section of the southern pier year-round, according to the proposal. A sabiki rig usually contains at least six small hooks and is used to catch baitfish. Wildlife officials have documentation of pelicans becoming entangled in the small sabiki hooks at the pier.
Wildlife officials said they would also establish mandatory education on seabird entanglements and would collect data to determine whether the regulations are working, with the option of sunsetting the regulations after an undetermined period of time.
“Regulatory action is necessary to reduce severe entanglement at the Skyway,” said Kali Spurgin, a biologist with the Florida wildlife commission, while explaining the state’s reasoning for why there should be new rules.
“Potential gear restrictions would reduce the frequency of severe entanglements and difficult bird rescues, decreasing the burden on both recreational anglers and wildlife rescuers alike,” Spurgin said.
As of November, at least 1,000 birds needed veterinary care and 500 had died since January 2021 after they were hooked or wrapped in fishing gear at the popular angling spot beside the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, according to data provided by the state.
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To address the problem, the commission in November proposed limiting anglers to no more than three sets of hook-and-line gear within the park and a blanket ban on gear with multiple hooks. Frequent pier anglers have called any new rules a premature overreach, while bird conservation groups like Bradenton-based Friends of the Pelicans call the pier “pelican death row” and say multiple-hook gear should be banned all year, as the commission initially proposed.
Few from either camp seemed completely satisfied with the state’s newly proposed plan to curb bird entanglements Wednesday.
“I feel there is a need to have those types of hooks banned from the pier 12 months a year,” said Edie Driest, a Friends of the Pelicans member. “This is about restricting those types of hooks, which would generally reduce the problems.”
In December, six environmental organizations urged the federal government to intervene to prevent more bird tangles, and proposed even stricter regulations than the ones currently being discussed, including allowing one fishing pole per person and closing the north end of the south pier.
Anglers oppose any new restrictions and claim the rules would interfere with their ability to recreate.
“Fishermen have come to the table and made good faith negotiations, only to be met without any give from other stakeholder groups,” Capt. Dylan Hubbard, the president of the Florida Guides Association, said during the meeting.
Earlier this month, the chairperson of Florida’s wildlife agency, Rodney Barreto, urged unity and participation between anglers and bird advocates. Barreto said he wants draft rules presented at the commission’s upcoming February meeting.
“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 in a letter to anglers and environmentalists Jan. 4.
“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.”