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Feds are asked to protect shorebirds at the Skyway fishing pier

Woman untangling pelican caught in a fishing line
Photo by Captain Nick Graham
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Entangled pelican at Sunshine Skyway Rocks, Tampa Bay

A letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says more than 2,300 birds have been rescued over the past two years after they became tangled in fishing lines.

Several environmental groups are asking the federal government to step in to prevent seabirds from being killed by fishing lines at the Sunshine Skyway south pier. The request is sure to draw some opposition from fishermen.

The letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that anglers at the Skyway pier are injuring and killing brown pelicans and other birds after they get hooked or entangled in gear.

It says over the past two years, more than 2,300 birds have been rescued.

Skyway pier map.jpg
Kara Clauser, Center for Biological Diversity
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The north and south piers are highlighted in red, with the National Wildlife Refuges marked in green

"The Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier State Park has become something of a bird deathtrap," said Elise Bennett, with the nonprofit group Center for Biological Diversity. "And we just want to see some real, meaningful action taken by the state, and also to make the fishing experience better for folks who are on the pier. I mean, they don't want to be getting these birds entangled and having to cut their lines either."

The groups want the feds to pressure the state to take action, including restricting the number of hooks and fishing poles allowed — and possibly even close the pier during the height of nesting season.

"One way that the state could make things better at the pier would be to hire full-time rescuers that are present on the pier, for all the times that the pier's open, which is 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Bennett said, "to have those rescuers available to help anglers when they have these entanglements. So they don't cut the line and essentially send these off the birds off to a death sentence."

State officials say they're working on those concerns.

Chart of bird rescues
Friends of the Pelicans
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Friends of the Pelicans’ Bird Rescues 2019-present

Here's WUSF's interview with Elise Bennett:

The Skyway fishing pier is a really hot spot for birds with customers located right up there at the mouth of Tampa Bay.

BENNETT: Yes, it's right at the mouth of the Tampa Bay estuary. And as you may know, the Skyway fishing pier was once the Skyway Bridge. And so it's unique from other fishing piers in its total length, and in its height, and those kinds of things have essentially made this fishing pier into a death trap for coastal migratory birds.

Friends of the Pelicans, a nonprofit that is out there daily rescuing birds, has counted over 1,000 birds each year over the past two years that they've rescued from entanglement and hooking by fishing gear. And those are just the birds that we know were rescued and safe. They've also documented many pelicans hanging and tangled and hooks and inline in the nearby mangroves, which are often important rookeries for these birds.

And so just the massive scale of harm that's happening to these birds, and the fact that it's here in our estuary, it's close to our national wildlife refuges and rookeries that are important to these birds make us very concerned — not just for the well being of each individual pelican, although that's really heartbreaking, but also really concerned for the conservation of our bird populations here in the Bay.

So you believe that the state wildlife officials are not doing enough to prevent these entanglements, regulate the number of fishing poles, etc.?

Ultimately, it comes down to the state because the Florida Department of Transportation owns this bridge, the Department of Environmental Protection leases it and operates it as this state park for fishing. And then we also have the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that regulates fishing activities. And what we've seen is that this group of state agencies who's responsible for overseeing and managing the state park have failed to put sufficient protections in place to make sure that we're not seeing thousands of birds get injured and killed by the activities on the pier.

And not only are we concerned about it, but we know that that's a violation of federal law. Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, you can't harm and kill these birds without having previous authorization from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Coastal migratory birds are all protected. And so, when we continue to see that the state wasn't putting enough measures in place to protect the birds, we felt that the only option was to turn to the federal government to enforce this law that the state is violating.

And so one way that the state could make things better at the pier would be to hire full-time rescuers, multiple rescuers that are present on the pier for all the times that the piers open, which is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to have those rescuers available to help anglers when they have these entanglements. So they don't cut the line and essentially send these off the birds off to a death sentence.

Other things that we've we've seen considered by the agencies and have been pushing for is limitations on certain kinds of gear that do the most harm. So that includes gear that have multiple hooks on them. That also includes potentially having folks be limited to the number of poles they have, and having them in hand, because rescuers have often witnessed where, for instance, a pelican might get entangled in the line. And if no one's holding on to that pole, the entire pole goes into the water and is a real a real threat to the bird, the bird really can't escape when it's being dragged down by that pole. So we really see some of these common-sense suggestions of ways that the state could be doing more to protect birds, and he's just utterly failed to do so far.

In the letter you all have sent to the federal government — I believe this came from Friends of the Pelicans — one of the suggestions is a four-month closure of part of the South Pier. That is probably going to get a lot of blowback. Do you think that is a suggestion that might be maybe a bridge too far?

Well, we wouldn't have suggested it if we thought it was a bridge too far. I think at this point, because of just the massive scale of the harm. The state really needs to be bold and ambitious in the way that it addresses this problem. And so I think it is something that the state should consider. You know, we've also talked about considering the agencies we've talked about as well as conservation groups have talked about whether maybe there are portions of the pier that are more dangerous to birds and other and perhaps having periodic closures of those would be helpful.

We've seen down at the Naples pier, where they have had some success in reducing the harm to coastal migratory birds simply by having periodic or temporary closures for certain times. And so it's certainly a tried and true method and it should be something that's considered.

Anything else you'd like to say?

Ultimately, what this comes down to is that, you know, folks who are out on the pier often know that the Sunshine Skyway fishing pier state park has become something of a bird deathtrap. And we just want to see some real, meaningful action taken by the state to make a difference for the conservation of our wildlife here in the county, and also to make the fishing experience better for folks who are on the pier. I mean, they don't want to be getting these birds entangled and having to cut their lines either.

So we think there's an opportunity to take any number of the suggestions that we've made and put them together to come up with a real solution that can work out for everybody.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.