Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, May 8, 2023

Contact:

Elise Bennett, Center for Biological Diversity, (727) 755-6950, ebennett@biologicaldiversity.org
Jeanette Edwards, Friends of the Pelicans, (941) 345-1653, fotpelicans@gmail.com
Katy Hennig, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, (239) 380-1715, KatyH@conservancy.org

Federal Officials Weigh In on Protecting Coastal Birds at Florida State Park

Hundreds of Birds Hooked, Entangled Each Year at Skyway Fishing Pier

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned about deadly bird entanglements at Florida’s Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier and is committed to “exploring options with others to find a resolution,” according to a new letter from the agency to conservation groups.

The May 4 letter responds to a December request that the Service enforce the Migratory Bird Treaty Act against Florida for failing to rein in threats to pelicans and other protected birds at the pier. Thousands of birds have been hooked and entangled at the park over the past few years. But the Service’s letter stopped short of providing a firm commitment to enforce federal protections for Tampa Bay’s migratory birds.

The federal response follows a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting in February where commissioners panned even minimal gear restrictions recommended by staff that would have reduced severe bird entanglements at the pier.

“The threat to birds from Skyway Pier has been an ongoing problem since it opened in 1994 and needs to be addressed now before it is too late,” said Jeanette Edwards, founder of Friends of the Pelicans. “We have been seeing and documenting the suffering and deaths of these birds on the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier for almost three years while also witnessing a steady decline in our nesting population.”

“The Skyway Pier’s deadly entanglement problem continues unabated, so we’re left wondering why wildlife officials aren’t standing up for Tampa Bay’s coastal birds,” said Elise Bennett, Florida and Caribbean director and attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We appreciate the response but are deeply disappointed the Service hasn’t firmly committed to enforcing the federal protections these birds so desperately need. The Bay’s birds need the Service’s help now more than ever.”

“The impacts from pier fishing to sea birds are very real,” said Barbara Howard, president of Friends of the Tampa Bay National Wildlife Refuges. “We see these impacts on the national wildlife refuges in Tampa Bay, and see our nesting numbers dropping. The refuges are important protected places for wildlife in Tampa Bay, critical to the success of nesting birds, some of which are State designated threatened species. Much of this significant impact to the wildlife we all want to protect could be avoided. Unfortunately, the problem will not resolve itself, it will only get worse, if we don't intervene. We urge Federal, State, local, and all parties, both conservationists and anglers, to work together to implement strong protection for these vulnerable birds. We all need to protect wildlife for future generations.”

“The Service’s failure to use the full force of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is incredibly disappointing and negligent of their mission to conserve and protect wildlife,” said Joanna Fitzgerald, hospital director at Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s von Arx Wildlife Hospital. “Enforcing this law, created to ensure our migratory birds are protected, would force Florida to mitigate injuries and loss of life from fishing hook and line entanglement at the Skyway Fishing Pier, just as Naples has successfully done at the Naples Pier.”

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 sent the December letter to highlight how state-sanctioned fishing activities at the Skyway pier are injuring and killing brown pelicans and other migratory birds at a massive scale. The letter also recommended measures to prevent severe entanglements and facilitate seabird rescues.

The groups asserted that the state agencies operating, managing and regulating the Skyway fishing pier have failed to effectively curtail this vast harm to coastal birds, as demonstrated by ongoing entanglement and hooking incidents.

Over the past two years, volunteers with Friends of the Pelicans have rescued more than 2,300 birds. They have witnessed even more injured or dead birds at the pier and nearby rookeries. The large number of birds injured and killed at the pier, which is close to important coastal rookeries at the Tampa Bay National Wildlife Refuge, could cause declines in the estuary’s bird populations.

A February 2023 study showed accelerating declines of North America’s shorebirds, which signals a “clear need for urgent conservation action” to protect shorebirds from threats that limit their population growth.

Background

The Skyway fishing pier consists of the remains of the former Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which partially collapsed during a vessel collision in 1980. After renovating the bridge’s remaining portions, the Florida Department of Transportation leased it in 1994 to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to administer as a state park.

Because of its unique size and height, the Skyway fishing pier is deadlier to birds than any other pier in the state. The pier’s length and height make it difficult to rescue hooked or entangled birds. Without assistance from trained rescuers, anglers often cut the line a likely death sentence for the bird.

When anglers use multiple fishing poles, lines extending as far as 150 feet from the pier create a maze for coastal birds to navigate, often causing them to pull fishing poles entirely into the water. Gear with multiple hooks can leave gashes and tears in pelicans’ pouches and may require surgery if swallowed.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the purposeful and incidental take of migratory birds without prior authorization from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Tampa Bay Estuary is home to many species of pelican, gull, egret, heron and other coastal birds protected under the Act.

RSPelican_Captain_Nick_Graham_FPWC-scr(1)
Entangled pelican at Sunshine Skyway Rocks, Tampa Bay. Credit: Captain Nick Graham. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Friends of the Pelicans is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect the right of all birds—pelicans in particular—to live out their lives free from harm caused by human interference, including fishing line entanglement.

Friends of the Tampa Bay National Wildlife Refuges is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote conservation, awareness, and appreciation of the Tampa Bay National Wildlife Refuges, and to assist the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with their mission for those Refuges. We accomplish this through outreach, education, advocacy, and volunteering to protect the nesting and resting wading birds, seabirds, and other wildlife on the refuges as well as protecting the habitat they need to thrive.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida is a not-for-profit environmental protection organization with a 57-year history focused on the issues impacting the water, land, wildlife and future of Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties.

Founded in 1954, the Humane Society of the United States fights the big fights to end suffering for all animals. Together with millions of supporters, we take on puppy mills, factory farms, trophy hunts, animal testing and other cruel industries. With our affiliates, we rescue and care for tens of thousands of animals every year through our animal rescue team’s work and other hands-on animal care services. We fight all forms of animal cruelty to achieve the vision behind our name: A humane society. Learn more about our work at humanesociety.org.

American Bird Conservancy is a national non-profit membership organization dedicated to the conservation of native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas.

center locations

Programs: