A debate that has boiled for months about how to prevent seabirds from becoming snared in fishing gear at one of Florida’s premier angling locations may soon enter its final chapter.
Thousands of birds, mainly brown pelicans from nearby roosts, became entangled in fishing gear over the past two years at the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park — where more than 200,000 people convene annually to toss a line into Tampa Bay.
Now, facing a rise in tangle-related seabird deaths, Florida wildlife officials are poised to present their final proposed rules for anglers during a statewide wildlife commission meeting next week in St. Petersburg.
After meeting with anglers and bird advocates roughly 30 times, state wildlife staff said there is still no agreed-upon solution. Pelican rescuers say tighter restrictions are needed to curb bird deaths, while anglers are against any new rules restricting their sport at the pier.
Regardless of the tensions, staff are now proposing three key rule changes for Skyway anglers, which can be approved, denied or approved with changes next week by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioners. Here’s what’s on the table:
First, all anglers who want to fish on the pier would be required to take a pier fishing educational course about responsible angling practices, which a state spokesperson said could be a video or reading requirement followed by a few questions. Details remain sparse about the test’s specifics, but anyone who completes the program would earn a one-time identification code that will appear on a certificate of completion, valid for one year, according to the proposed rule filed by state wildlife officials.
Next, a seasonal gear ban on fishing rigs with multiple hooks would be active between Nov. 15 and March 15 each year, according to the proposal. Gear with more than one hook, like treble hooks and sabiki rigs, would be prohibited during the ban. That’s a departure from a previous proposed rule, which called for a year-round ban on that type of gear at a section of the southern pier.
Finally, anglers wouldn’t be allowed to use more than two sets of hook-and-line gear at the pier, according to the proposed rules. That restriction would be in place year-round.
“This is something that’s been going on for quite awhile, and these proposed rules are intended to reduce the number of severe bird entanglements, which could lead to injury and death,” said Emily Abellera, a spokesperson for the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries Management.
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If approved, state wildlife officials would then review whether the rules are working after two years and determine whether they should be repealed or expanded.
Data previously shared by the division showed at least 3,300 seabirds required rescue from the pier over a two-year period, beginning in 2021, after they were hooked or wrapped in fishing gear. Of those, at least 1,000 birds needed veterinary care and 500 died.
The pier is open 24 hours a day, making it among the most frequented fishing piers in the state, according to wildlife commissioners. Anglers love it: No fishing license is required, and it offers accessibility to open waters where kingfish, giant groupers and other pelagic species roam.
“The rules are also meant to allow for fishing at this super unique and popular location,” Abellera said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.
Anglers claim any new regulations would restrict access to their sport, and one group, dubbed the “Skyway Misfits,” has rallied anglers to weigh in on the rule proposals. The Skyway Misfits, who boast nearly 2 million followers on TikTok, claim the pelican rescue data is inflated and more data is needed to inform sound regulations. They also said a ban on multiple hooks, like sabiki rigs used to catch baitfish, would unfairly impact the disabled community who can’t use cast nets to catch bait.
“(State wildlife staff) are proposing restrictions on the anglers with no credible scientific approach or data,” ChiChi Cross, a co-founder of the Skyway Misfits, said in a social media message to the Times. Cross uses a wheelchair, and is worried a ban on sabiki rigs, which use up to six small hooks to catch baitfish, would limit how much she can fish.
Florida wildlife staff are still unclear which way the Gov. Ron DeSantis-appointed commissioners will swing on the decision, Abellera said. During a February meeting, commissioners signaled their hesitance to approve monthslong bans on certain fishing gear. The commission will meet publicly July 19 at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront, and public comment will be limited to one hour. If approved, new rules would be effective Oct. 1.
Environmental activist groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, are frustrated with the new slate of proposed rules, which they say are a step back from original protections proposed earlier in the year.
“It’s weaker than the proposal in February, and frankly, disappointing,” Elise Bennett, the Center’s Florida director, said in an email to the Times.
“Given quantity and severity of severe bird entanglements, and the fact that they have been happening for many years, the time for half-measures has long passed,” Bennett said.
“It’s frustrating that the Commission doesn’t seem to grasp the gravity of harm to these protected migratory birds.”