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New rules approved for anglers at the Skyway Pier. Here’s what to know.

The new rules are meant to prevent pelicans and other seabirds from becoming snagged in fishing gear at the busy angling spot.
 
A wildlife sign hangs from the wall as Ashleigh Hall, 36, sports her “Fish to Live to Fish” shirt while fishing with the Sunshine Skyway bridge in background at the Sunshine Skyway northern fishing pier on Tuesday in St. Petersburg.
A wildlife sign hangs from the wall as Ashleigh Hall, 36, sports her “Fish to Live to Fish” shirt while fishing with the Sunshine Skyway bridge in background at the Sunshine Skyway northern fishing pier on Tuesday in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published July 19, 2023|Updated July 19, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — After months of debate, it’s finally official: New rules are coming for anglers at the popular Skyway Fishing Pier State Park.

Starting Oct. 1, anglers will be limited to just two fishing rods at one time and must first complete an educational pier fishing course on responsible angling practices before casting a line.

There will also be a ban on fishing gear with multiple hooks, like sabiki rigs used to catch baitfish, from Nov. 15 to March 15 each year.

The new rules come in response to the recent rise in seabird entanglements in fishing gear at the pier, where more than 200,000 people visit each year. The pier’s unique location over Tampa Bay, paired with its lack of a requirement for a fishing license, has elevated it as one of the most frequented fishing spots in Florida, if not the entire Southeast.

But the pier’s popularity has also come with a cost: At least 3,300 seabirds, mainly brown pelicans, required rescue from the pier over a two-year period, beginning in 2021 after they were snagged in fishing gear, according to recent data shared by the wildlife commission. Of those, at least 1,000 birds needed veterinary care and roughly 500 died.

A sign protecting wildlife hangs along the fishing wall as fishing rods lean against the wall at the Sunshine Skyway northern fishing pier on Tuesday.
A sign protecting wildlife hangs along the fishing wall as fishing rods lean against the wall at the Sunshine Skyway northern fishing pier on Tuesday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

More than 50 people shared their feedback Wednesday morning on the new rules during the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s meeting at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront. Opinions varied: Some anglers feared restrictions at the pier would hurt their sport, while bird advocates wanted a year-round ban on gear with multiple hooks, among other tighter fishing regulations.

Overall, though, the consensus among the public was that the rules were a good start. Commissioners will review the new changes in two years and evaluate their effectiveness, according to Melissa Tucker, director of the commission’s habitat and species conservation division.

“The definition of a compromise is that no one’s happy, so I think we’ve succeeded,” joked Gary Lester, a wildlife commissioner appointed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in August 2022.

Wildlife chairperson Rodney Barreto and his vice chair, Steven Hudson, both wanted the proposed restrictions to go further, advocating instead for a year-round ban on sabiki rigs on the pier during the daytime. That measure was ultimately shot down by the rest of the commission.

“This place is unique,” Barreto said. “Believe me, there’s a lot of fishing opportunities in Florida. But there’s limited opportunities for brown pelicans. I think we have a great plan in place.”

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Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission chairman Rodney Barreto, on right, listens as a speaker addresses the issue of fishing and seabirds at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting on Wednesday.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission chairman Rodney Barreto, on right, listens as a speaker addresses the issue of fishing and seabirds at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting on Wednesday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

While anglers and bird advocates mostly disagreed on what gear, if any, should be restricted, there was always a broad consensus that more education is needed to prevent pelicans and other birds from getting snared in fishing line.

Starting in October, fishing on the Skyway Pier will require proof that you’ve completed a mandatory educational course on possible seabird-angler interactions, according to the new rules. The course, which will be developed with input from both anglers and wildlife conservation groups, will teach strategies for reducing tangles and will advise what to do if a bird does become trapped in line.

The course will be available online through the state wildlife commission’s website, and fishers will receive a unique identification code as proof of completion. The code will be valid for one year, per the new rules.

“Monofilament and hooks are taking a devastating toll on our seabirds and our pelicans, and we have a moral responsibility to stop this carnage,” said Nancy Watters of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Audubon Society. Watters said the new rules are an opportunity to correct a long-standing issue.

“These regulatory solutions are well-intended, researched and documented,” Watters said. “However, long-overdue.”

The average number of entangled pelicans counted at the southern portion of the Skyway pier is higher than all the other Tampa Bay piers combined, according to Tucker. More than 75% of all annual entanglement rescues occur during the winter and the spring.

The proposed rules come after a lengthy process from state wildlife experts, who spent the past eight months gathering public input about how to address the seabird tangle problem. In January, Barreto sent a letter to more than 300,000 stakeholders urging unity and participation as experts chiseled away at their new proposal.

Before Wednesday’s vote, early ideas for how curb bird tangles included adding deterrents to the pier to prevent birds from flying too close, and a year-round ban on sabiki rigs at the Skyway Pier’s southern portion. The sabiki ban was ultimately slashed from wildlife staff recommendations after the angling community raised their concerns.

A seagull flies by as people fish at the Sunshine Skyway northern fishing pier on Tuesday.
A seagull flies by as people fish at the Sunshine Skyway northern fishing pier on Tuesday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“This is a compromise: None of the fishermen want to see birds injured or entangled,” said Dylan Hubbard, president of the Florida Guides Association.

“We want to help the birds, and we want to continue to preserve and protect our fishery and fishery access,” Hubbard said. “I think this is a good step forward.”