Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, February 21, 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
Kate MacFall, Humane Society of The United States, (850) 508-1001, kmacfall@humaesociety.org

Florida Commissioners Advance Rules Aimed at Curbing Bird Deaths at Skyway Pier

Weak Plan Unlikely to Significantly Reduce Pier's Thousands of Entanglements

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.— The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted today to move forward with proposed regulations meant to address bird deaths and injuries at the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park. But commissioners directed staff to consider significantly limiting the proposal, which wildlife advocates say already fails to truly protect thousands of birds from deadly fishing gear entanglements.

Today’s decision followed public comment from nonprofit rescuers and wildlife organizations, who highlighted the need for strong protections given the massive scale of harm suffered by Tampa Bay-area birds.

“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.”

“It’s upsetting to show so much clear evidence of our pelicans and other seabirds suffering and dying at this pier only to have commissioners chip away at even small gains we’ve tried to make,” said Jeanette Edwards, founder of Friends of the Pelicans.

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

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. If the measure is approved, commission staff recommend revisiting the rules after two years to determine whether they should be revised.

During the meeting, commission staff called the Skyway Fishing Pier a “pelican entanglement hot spot,” finding that half of entanglements are severe, requiring experienced rescue response and veterinary care, and at times leading to death. While there was some commissioner support for the staff’s proposed measures, others opposed introducing new gear restrictions.

A coalition of conservation groups are urging the commission to strengthen the measures. They propose hiring full-time bird rescuers, limiting anglers to using one or two poles at a time that must be attended, and prohibiting multiple-hook gear year-round. If those measures don’t significantly reduce harm, Florida officials should consider permanently or seasonally closing the south pier’s north end, where harmful entanglements are most frequent, the groups say.

Over the past two years, Friends of the Pelicans volunteers have rescued more than 2,300 birds. They’ve witnessed even more injured or dead birds at the pier and nearby rookeries. A peer-reviewed study of the Skyway piers and two other nearby piers found that more than 7% of brown pelicans observed were entangled in fishing gear.

The large number of birds injured and killed at the pier, which is near the Tampa Bay National Wildlife Refuge’s important coastal rookeries, could cause declines in the estuary’s bird populations.

Today’s regulatory 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.

Wildlife commission staff will continue to work on the proposed regulations and present a modified proposal at the July commission meeting.

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 another other Florida pier. When anglers use multiple fishing poles, lines extending as far as 150 feet from the pier create a maze for coastal birds, often causing them to pull fishing poles entirely into the water. Gear with multiple hooks can leave gashes and tears in pelicans’ pouches and sever tendons and ligaments.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the purposeful and incidental take of migratory birds without prior Fish and Wildlife Service authorization. The Tampa Bay Estuary is home to many species of coastal birds protected under the Act. Bird populations in North America are plummeting.

RSPelican_Captain_Nick_Graham_FPWC-scr
Pelican. Credit: Photo by 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.

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