FWC considers limiting Skyway pier fishing to single-hook in effort to save lives of seabirds

New regulations could help reduce pelican entanglement at popular a popular spot for anglers along the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. 

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials are considering some new rules they hope save the lives of seabirds at the Skyway fishing pier. But fishermen aren't amused by the potential changes, calling it an overreach.

FWC held a 2-hour meeting Monday to discuss the issue, with more than 100 in attendance, mostly bird rescuers and fishing captains. 

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"These pelicans are being severely and fatally injured," Friends of the Pelicans vice president Kim Begay said.

One angler said, "What they're just trying to do is just take everything away from us fishermen."

Volunteer bird rescuer Fairl Thomas acknowledged the main problem: anglers and birds are drawn to the area because it's a prime fishing spot.

But if a bird gets tangled and flies off before a rescuer can remove the hook, some say it's a death sentence for the animal.

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"We care about the birds of the estuary, very much so," fishing captain Zac Sturm said.

Sturm feels educating anglers is the key. He also questioned if one particular rescue method may contribute to the problem. 

The method involves using bait fish to lure injured and entangled pelicans to the pier so rescuers can remove the hook.

"Unfortunately, it's creating an artificial environment for these pelicans to be fed," Sturm said.

Thomas understands the concerns of fishermen, but underscored it's a matter of life or death for the birds. 

"Maybe it's a designated area of the pier that we're performing the rescues and attracting them over to simply that area so that the fishermen aren't getting disturbed, and the birds aren't getting disturbed by the fishermen," Thomas said.

Another point of contention are the type of hooks being used. Rescuers say treble hooks and Sabiki rigs pose a much greater risk than single hooks.

"They cut through ligaments, they cut through muscles, they gouged giant holes in the pelican," Begay said.

Fishing captain Dylan Hubbard worries hook restrictions are too limiting.

"You need Sabiki rigs to catch bait. A lot of people that go to the Skyway only go there to catch bait with a Sabiki rigs so a lot of these regulations have long-standing recreational fishing impacts," Hubbard said.

An option both sides seemed to agree on is to make the north end of the pier accessible to rescuers. That's where any entangled birds go. Right now, it's closed so rescuers cannot get to the injured birds.

The main rule change FWC is considering is to only allow single hooks. They'll take the feedback they received and present recommendations to the commission at their February 2023 meeting.