Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, February 14, 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

Florida’s Proposal to Curb Bird Deaths at Skyway Pier Falls Short

More Than 2,000 Birds Hooked, Entangled at Skyway in Past Two Years

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced proposed regulations today to address bird deaths and injuries at the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier State Park. The move comes after nonprofit rescuers, wildlife groups and academics highlighted the thousands of birds rescued from entanglement at the pier over the past two years.

“These half-measures fail to truly address the dire situation faced by the thousands of Bay-area birds being entangled and hooked at the Skyway Pier,” said Elise Bennett, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s a shame we have to push so hard to get our conservation commission to prevent the inhumane and wasteful deaths of pelicans and other beautiful coastal birds here in Tampa Bay. We urge the commission to strengthen these protections before finalizing the rule.”

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.

The Center and Friends of the Pelicans are urging the commission to work with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which operates the pier, to adopt a stronger suite of protections. Those include hiring multiple full-time bird rescuers, limiting anglers to using one or two poles at a time and requiring that they be attended, and prohibiting multiple-hook gear pier-wide and year-round.

If those measures fail to significantly reduce harm, Florida wildlife officials should consider permanently or seasonally closing the north end of the south pier, where harmful entanglements are most frequent, the groups say.

“We are very disappointed that, so far, Florida wildlife officials are unwilling to give pelicans the protections they need,” said Jeanette Edwards, founder of Friends of the Pelicans. “We’re particularly concerned that the agency is only proposing protections for part of the year. Pelicans are hooked and killed all year long at the Skyway Pier and thus require year-long safeguards.”

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 in 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 close to important coastal rookeries at the Tampa Bay National Wildlife Refuge, 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 and effectively 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 commissioners will receive public comment and decide whether to approve the proposed rule for publication during their meeting on Feb. 21, 2023, in Jacksonville, Florida. Written comments may be submitted ahead of the meeting via the online commenting portal by 5 p.m. Eastern on Feb. 16, 2023.

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 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 sever tendons and ligaments, which may require surgery or euthanasia.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was enacted in 1918 to implement the United States’ international treaty commitments to protect populations of migratory birds. Its provisions prohibit the purposeful and incidental take of migratory birds without prior authorization from the 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.

Bird populations in North America are plummeting, with 3 billion birds having disappeared from the continent since 1970.

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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