Here's the catch: Hooks, line pose everyday threat to birds

Sandy Reed checks over a common loon rescued from injury at the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier. Among solutions offered: Stop feeding the birds, post billboards, train volunteer monitors.
Sandy Reed checks over a common loon rescued from injury at the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier. Among solutions offered: Stop feeding the birds, post billboards, train volunteer monitors.
Published March 1, 2013

It's a crisp, cloudless morning at the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier, and Nguyen Sung of Lutz baits his hook, eager to try his luck alongside others who cast their lines into Tampa Bay on the pier's south side. • Paddling about in the azure water below is another species hoping for a lucky catch: a common loon visiting from as far north as Minnesota or Canada. • Seconds after Sung's hook zings over the railing, the loon abruptly dives, thrashing in a panic under water and then spinning wildly when forced to the surface as Sung tugs on the fishing rod. Suddenly he has a bird on a wire.

Unlucky catches like that occur daily at fishing piers all over Florida, say fishermen and wildlife rescuers. This one, which happened last month, ended with a lucky loon. Sung kept the bird on the line until veteran angler Albert Ortiz of St. Petersburg and Tampa Audubon bird monitor Sandy Reed of Valrico could remove the hook and line and set the animal free.

Many hooked or entangled birds are not so lucky, and that has lovers of feather and fin alike talking about ways to reduce the hazards of fishing line to wildlife. The recent deaths of an entangled loon and a black-legged kittiwake, an Arctic bird rarely spotted in Florida, set birders' Internet message boards abuzz. The kittiwake was one of two to show up at the Skyway early in February and had drawn dozens of camera-toting bird watchers from out of state before it became entwined and perished.

"It's not just birds that get caught," said Ann Paul, regional coordinator with Audubon of Florida. "It's turtles. It's manatees sometimes.

"For a healthy bird to be caught in fishing line and die because of careless actions by fishermen is just very unfortunate. … I think as a community we should say, 'Let's do better.' "

Paul has spent two decades patrolling bay area islands and cutting down dead birds snagged in mangroves by fishing line. Even if birds trailing twine avoid that fate, they likely will be hobbled and unable to forage. Often the tough synthetic strands act like a saw, rubbing against flesh and bone and severing wings or legs as the bird twists trying to get free.

"It will be a slow, painful death," said Reed, who joined Tampa Audubon two years ago and has been frequenting the Skyway pier to check on birds and talk to fishermen.

Local bird rescuers say pelicans, which stalk fishing holes hoping for handouts, are the most frequent victims, with hundreds of them showing up at bird hospitals with fishing line injuries every year. But gulls, cormorants, gamuts and terns also fall prey, either getting hooked or becoming entangled in a web of nearly invisible strands when fishermen cluster at the same spot.

In the fall, Audubon and a nonprofit partner, Tampa Bay Watch, will conduct their 20th annual monofilament line cleanup of the bay, which Paul thinks has encouraged proper disposal of used fishing line. But helping ensnared birds is more complicated.

Jamie Foster, who helps manage the Skyway pier and concessions leased from the state, said she was heartbroken when she learned of the kittiwake's fate via an Internet blog. A few days before, she said, she had driven by a group of bird watchers observing the ailing kittiwake and she stopped to talk.

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No one alerted her to the bird's distress, and she drove on.

"I thought they were having the best day of their lives," she said. "It was only waist-deep water. … I've rescued hundreds of birds from this pier.

"It makes me kind of sick to my stomach that these people drove hours to watch a bird die."

Foster has since posted signs with pictures telling anglers what to do if they hook a bird. She put together rescue kits that have line cutters and other equipment to be kept at bait shops on the north and south piers, and there's a large net suitable for scooping birds from the water, which bird rescuers say is less likely to cause injury than hauling the animals up on the line.

But Reed said there's no simple way to report birds in trouble. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission advises people to call its hotline, 1-888-404-3922. Depending on the location, the commission will provide a list of bird rescuers that might collect the bird and take it to a rehabilitation facility, said Amy Clifton, a species conservation biologist at the commission. Apart from that, there is no central number to call for help.

FWC officials say there's no law requiring fishermen to remove hooks and fishing line from unintentionally trapped birds. Reed and Paul said people should feel compelled to do it anyway, and Neil Taylor, a fishing guide in Tampa Bay for eight years, agreed —with reservations.

"Yes, since they (fishermen) are the ones in the bird's habitat," Taylor said, then added, "I'd hate to tell someone they're obligated to do it and then they lose an eye."

Anglers and bird experts interviewed agreed that basic procedures for handling hooked birds are largely the same but can vary by species. Some birds can inflict serious wounds with their beaks, while others pose more threat with talons or wings, Taylor said.

Taylor said people are not required to learn bird-handling techniques to get a fishing license, and he doubted the state will ever require it. He favors education, and he is hoping to attract a grant to pay for billboards addressing the fishing line issue.

Reed and Liz Vreeland, a longtime bird rescuer in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, said they would like to organize trained volunteers to regularly monitor popular fishing spots and work with fishermen to reduce bird casualties.

Lee Fox, who has nursed countless birds back to health at her Sarasota facility, Save Our Seabirds, said those are good ideas, but the best lesson people could learn is to stop endangering wild animals by feeding them.

"Everybody throws the fish they don't want to the birds," she said, adding that many coastal birds are supposed to fly south in winter to prowl warmer waters, but they stay where people with more sophisticated fishing equipment do the work for them.

"They want a free handout," Fox said. "If we can stop the people from feeding them, that's the campaign we have to start."