After more than two hours of discussion, Florida wildlife commissioners Tuesday signaled their hesitance to approve monthslong bans on certain fishing gear for anglers at the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park, despite thousands of birds becoming entangled in recent years.
Instead, leaders of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission urged staff experts to explore creative ways to stop seabirds from becoming snared in fishing lines at one of the busiest fishing spots in the state without outright gear restrictions. They suggested, for instance, looking into ways to physically deter the birds from flying near fishing lines.
The suggestions were a departure from the proposed set of rules wildlife staffers presented to the commission (which leaders still technically approved, with the caveat that they will be overhauling them) that would ban fishing gear with more than one hook, such as sabiki rigs and treble hooks, from Nov. 1 to March 31 each year. A sabiki rig typically has at least six small hooks to catch baitfish.
The proposed rules will be essentially rewritten between now and July, when the commission is set to discuss the issue again.
“Our commissioners usually prefer to do full bans, like fishing closures, as a very last resort. So in this case, they do not want to do a full fishing ban,” spokesperson Emily Abellera told the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday afternoon.
The proposed rules that were approved Tuesday “will be completely overhauled,” Abellera said, “but it was important for the commissioners to go ahead and take this first step to get the ball rolling on taking action on this.”
Over the past two years, more than 3,600 seabirds needed rescue from the Skyway pier after becoming entangled in fishing gear. Of those, more than 500 pelicans were found dead, according to data presented by Melissa Tucker, director of the commission’s habitat and species conservation division.
The average number of entangled pelicans counted at the south Skyway pier is higher than all the other Tampa Bay piers combined, Tucker said. More than 75% of all annual entanglement rescues occur during the winter and the spring.
The commission raised some suggestions about improving the proposed rules to be more favorable for anglers, including whether physical deterrents such as hanging ropes from beneath the pier would help prevent pelicans and other seabirds from flying near anglers’ bait. They also floated an option to allow sabiki rigs at the pier between dusk and dawn.
“Fishing gear entanglement of seabirds at the pier is very challenging. Stakeholders are passionate about this issue — and their opinions are widely varied,” said Jessica McCawley, director of the commission’s marine fisheries management division. Anglers say any restrictions on their ability to fish the pier are unreasonable, while bird conservationists argue more regulations are needed to curb the problem.
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The wildlife commission has held several public meetings over the past few months to hear feedback from both anglers and bird advocates. Tensions sometimes ran high as the parties disagreed on the best way to reach a consensus. Commission chairperson Rodney Bareto in January sent a letter to 300,000 anglers, bird advocates and other parties urging their cooperation in finding a solution.
Anglers were largely concerned that restricting gear could hinder access to one of the few fishing spots in the state where an offshore pelagic species could be caught from a pier. The pier also doesn’t require individual fishing licenses.
“As we start to impose limitations in these areas, it really hurts the sport,” Gray Burtchaell, a board member of the Old Salt Fishing Foundation, told the commission.
For their part, conservation groups decried the change of direction after the commission’s multi-hour conversation.
“It’s excruciating to see the commission equivocating when it comes to protecting Tampa Bay’s migratory seabirds from needless death and injury,” said Elise Bennett, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a prepared statement.
“After years and years of massive suffering at the Skyway Pier, the Bay’s birds are literally dying for meaningful, year-round protections.”