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Pelican deaths prompt fishing changes at the Sunshine Skyway pier

A pelican surveys the scene at the Sunshine Skyway
Florida State Parks
A pelican surveys the scene at the Sunshine Skyway

State wildlife officials moved to increase protections for pelicans who become entangled in fishing lines at the Sunshine Skyway pier. But many bird advocates say it's not enough.

Thousands of pelicans have been ensnared in fishing lines at the Skyway's popular south fishing pier in the past several years, and countless more have died from their injuries.

So Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioners voted Tuesday to move forward on some restrictions, including banning the use of multiple hooks during peak pelican nesting season.

Commissioners agreed to tweak the rules at their next meeting in July.

"The entanglements aren't going to stop unless you stop fishing altogether. And that's not realistic," commission chairman Rodney Barreto said during their meeting in Jacksonville. "And it's not realistic for us to do nothing. So getting to somewhere in between and monitoring that for the next two years, I think is a very wise decision."

Bird rescuers say the proposed rules fail to protect the pelicans. They've called for more restrictions on multiple hook fishing gear and possibly even closing the south pier part of the year.

Jeannette Edwards is founder of Friends of the Pelicans, based in Bradenton.

"For 30 years, this pier has been ignored, with no regulations or no oversight at all. So asking for a 12-month ban on these hooks is not unreasonable," Edwards told commissioners. "A five-month ban would be ineffective and allow this to continue. A bird protected in March will get hooked in April and die."

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

The restrictions would be in effect for two years and would then be reviewed. Wildlife commissioners will hold a final vote on the rules at their July meeting.

“It’s our job to balance the interests of both fish and wildlife as well as anglers. We face this all the time," Commissioner Robert Spottswood said. "We’ve always limited or closed access only as a last resort, and we have approved this proposed rule with the understanding that modifications will likely occur at the final hearing.”

The commission’s current proposed rule for the Skyway pier would impose an annual education requirement, prohibit the use of fishing rigs with more than one hook or multiple hooks from November through March, limit anglers to two sets of hook-and-line gear, and prohibit the use of sabiki rigs year-round on the north end of the south fishing pier.

The proposal follows a letter sent by conservation groups to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in December 2022. The letter urged the federal agency to enforce the Migratory Bird Treaty Act if Florida doesn’t swiftly rein in threats to protected coastal birds at the pier. The letter was submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Pelicans, Friends of the Tampa Bay National Wildlife Refuges, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Humane Society of the United States and American Bird Conservancy.

“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. “After years and years of massive suffering at the Skyway pier, the Bay’s birds are literally dying for meaningful, year-round protections.”

“I’m pleased the commission voted to move forward with some changes in the right direction," said Kate MacFall, Florida state director with the Humane Society of the United States. "But disappointed they rejected common-sense measures to protect birds who are getting severely injured at an alarming rate of over 1,000 per year.”

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