Florida environmentalists want feds to intervene in Skyway Fishing Pier bird snags

ST. PETERSBURG — A coalition of Florida environmental groups on Thursday urged federal wildlife officials to intervene to prevent more seabirds from becoming entangled in fishing gear at the popular Skyway Fishing Pier State Park.

In a letter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, six advocacy organizations said the state environmental agencies that oversee pier operations haven’t taken adequate steps to minimize bird entanglements and claimed a century-old federal law to protect migratory birds is being violated.

At least 1,000 birds needed veterinary care and 500 have died since January 2021 after they were hooked or wrapped in fishing gear at the busy angling spot beside the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data. Environmentalists claim that’s a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which prohibits the capturing and killing of protected migratory bird species.

“We want people to be able to enjoy the pier and fishing there, but we also want the state to take responsibility for protecting our bird populations here in Tampa Bay,” said Elise Bennett, a senior attorney and Florida director at The Center for Biological Diversity. The Center orchestrated the letter to the federal wildlife service alongside Friends of the Pelicans, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the Humane Society of the United States, among other organizations.

“We’re not seeing swift action from state agencies, and we felt like we had no other choice but to go to federal wildlife officials and ask them to enforce this law,” Bennett said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s something we know the state is aware of, but it’s clear that much more needs to be done.”

Pelicans sit by the South Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier on Nov.  23.
Pelicans sit by the South Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier on Nov. 23. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

In response to the rise in entanglements, the state wildlife commission has suggested prohibiting fishing gear with more than one hook, like treble hooks and sabiki rigs, and limiting anglers to no more than three sets of hook-and-line gear within the park.

“The (wildlife commission) takes pelican conservation seriously and we are working to address these concerns,” spokesperson Carli Segelson said in an emailed statement. She cited multiple meetings in the past to gather input on the proposed rules.

In their letter Thursday, environmentalists advocated for even stricter regulations, like only one fishing pole per person and closing the north end of the south pier. While the environmentalists in the letter claim the state is doing too little, many in the angling community believe the state is proposing too much.

The wildlife commission’s rule proposal prompted impassioned comments from anglers during a Nov. 21 virtual public meetings hosted by the agency. Some anglers who opposed the rule changes said there needs to be more education for novice anglers on how to reduce the chances of bird entanglement before the state government issues restrictions at one of Florida’s premier fishing locations.

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Capt. Dylan Hubbard, the president of the Florida Guides Association, was one of the anglers during the November meeting who shared his concerns for the proposed rule changes. The association he leads advocates for protecting angler rights while also encouraging the responsible use of Florida’s natural resources.

On Thursday, Hubbard told the Times that this latest letter by Florida environmental groups is a “hilarious” political move that ignores the science and uses emotional pleas to take the attention away from anglers’ genuine concerns.

“We have got to take the emotion out of the process,” Hubbard said in an interview. “This whole process has been bastardized because of politics and ill-will. Emotions got involved and logic is out the window. There needs to be a logical, time-based approach to this.”

Hubbard wants data to drive the decision-making, but also suggested new restrictions should sunset after one year if they are ultimately imposed. That way the state, anglers and environmentalists can go back after a year to see what worked and what didn’t.

“Something like that would be much easier to swallow,” Hubbard said. “Nothing hurts me as a fisherman more than a bird flying away with fishing line. But it’s an educational problem: New fishermen will hook a pelican and they don’t know how to act.”

Members of the popular online fishing community known as the Skyway Misfits, which has nearly 2 million followers on the social media app TikTok, also oppose the state’s new rules at the fishing pier. Several members tuned in during the November meeting to share their concerns.

Anglers fish along the North Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier on Nov.  23.
Anglers fish along the North Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier on Nov. 23. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

At least 113,000 people visited the Skyway pier between July 2021 and June 30 of this year, according to numbers provided by Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Alexandra Kuchta. That compares to about 80,000 visitors a year prior, although that number was also lower due to pandemic-related closures.

During the Florida wildlife commission’s latest meeting Nov. 30, Executive Director Eric Sutton said the recent rise in bird entanglements at the fishing pier is “a really serious conflict that has no easy solution.” He made a plea to all stakeholders involved, including bird advocates and anglers alike, to co-own a solution to the problem.

“Over the years, pelicans have become more and more entangled,” Sutton said during the meeting. “It’s led to a difficult conflict to resolve.”

Sutton praised his wildlife staff during the meeting for “trying to thread the needle” on the hotly debated topic.

The Gov. Ron DeSantis-appointed chair of the Florida wildlife commission, Rodney Barreto, said in November he wanted to “send a clear message from the commission that we have to get this resolved” and targeted the next commission meeting in February as the deadline for a resolution .

“Our plea to stakeholders is this: Come be part of the solution,” said Allie McCue, the wildlife commission’s southwest Florida regional director, during the November meeting. “We don’t think this is something that we can push through without their support.”