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Fishing at Florida pier endangers Brown Pelicans, other coastal birds

A rescuer attempts to help an entangled Brown Pelican at Sunshine Skyway Rocks, Tampa Bay. Photo by Captain Nick Graham.

Conservation groups sent a letter on December 15 urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to enforce the Migratory Bird Treaty Act if Florida doesn’t swiftly rein in threats to protected coastal birds at the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier State Park.

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 note that state-sanctioned fishing activities at the Skyway fishing pier are injuring and killing Brown Pelicans and other migratory coastal birds at a massive scale when they become hooked or entangled in gear.

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.

“We’re witnessing so many seabirds suffer and die around the Skyway fishing pier week after week, and it has to stop,” said Jeanette Edwards, founder of Friends of the Pelicans. “We believe that Florida can and should take meaningful steps to make angling at the pier safer for birds and more enjoyable for the people fishing there. It’s part of the state’s responsibility to protect our wildlife — for us and for future generations to enjoy.”

The conservation groups’ letter asserts 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.

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“It’s devastating that so many migratory birds are being injured and killed at the Skyway, and the state’s lethal mismanagement violates federal law,” said Elise Bennett, Florida director and attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “If Florida doesn’t move quickly to truly safeguard protected migratory birds at the pier, then the Fish and Wildlife Service must intervene. The state can’t continue to rely on volunteers’ altruism to deal with the fallout of its own ineffective management.”

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.

“The unique wildlife of our community is under unprecedented pressure from all of us,” said Patrick Mundus, vice president of Friends of the Tampa Bay National Wildlife Refuges. “We need everyone to work together to preserve our Tampa Bay home as a place for wildlife and people.”

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“Our successful work to make the Naples Pier safer for shorebirds shows that Florida can and should do more to protect migratory birds at the Skyway too,” said Joanna Fitzgerald, hospital director at Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s von Arx Wildlife Hospital. “The Conservancy, Naples City Council and the Naples Police Department worked together to reduce and prevent injuries to shorebirds at the Naples Pier by banning the use and possession of multiple-hook gear, limiting days and times when the pier can be used for fishing, and prohibiting leaving hooks and gear unattended. Changes like these can help balance recreational angling and protecting migratory birds.”

“It’s unfortunate that Florida Department of Environmental Protection has failed to ensure there are enough full-time bird rescuers on staff and that they have not attempted to modify the Skyway’s hours of operation, especially at night,” said Kate MacFall, Florida state director with Humane Society of the United States. “These basic mitigation policies would help decrease the number of birds harmed or killed and improve the experience for fishers as well.”

Today’s letter provides a list of actions the state must take to ensure fishing activities at the pier are safe for coastal birds and anglers. These include hiring multiple full-time bird rescuers, limiting anglers to using one pole at a time, which must remain in the angler’s control, and prohibiting multiple-hook gear. The groups also suggest full or partial closure of the north end of the south pier, where harmful entanglements are most frequent.

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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 may require surgery if swallowed.

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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 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.

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

Thanks to the Center for Biological Diversity for providing this news.

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