Manatee County official wants to halt 'silent death' of sea birds

MANATEE -- In an effort to halt the "silent death" of sea birds entangled in fishing gear, a Manatee County official wants to discuss problems at the Skyway Fishing Pier at a meeting with state officials next week.

"I'm going to try to alert them to the severity of the problem as we see it, we would ask that it be a priority for them," said Charlie Hunsicker, county director of parks and natural resources.

Hunsicker will meet Wednesday in Tallahassee with officials at the Flori

da Department of Environmental Protection, the governing body for the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park on both ends of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. He'll discuss a management plan for the brown pelican at the fishing pier.

"I'll have the opportunity to meet with representatives of DEP to see how the state can work to complement the activities of the Audubon volunteers," said Hunsicker.

He referred to efforts of bird lovers surrounding Tampa Bay, who have joined forces to rescue birds maimed by sharp lures and entangled in fishing lines.

Asked if he had any reliable bird mortality figures, Hunsicker said he did not.

"But keep in mind whatever numbers we're seeing or recording are those we can see," he said. "A lot of birds die a slow death in their rookeries and nesting grounds we never see. Not all are in sight, so there's a silent death going on in our mangroves and rookeries that is a tragic consequence of hook-and-line injuries."

Fishing gear with multiple lures, particularly one type called a Sabiki rig, is maiming and killing pelicans, cormorants, herons, terns and egrets, among other sea birds, he said. Such gear is meant to catch bait fish with multiple hooks and a lightweight line. However, if a bird swoops down to eat a hooked bait fish and flies off, the line breaks and the hooks become caught in its flesh or the bird becomes entangled in the line.

Some die from injuries, hang themselves accidentally or starve to death because they are immobilized.

Holmes Beach wildlife rescuer Jeannie Bystrom said she took 3,000 handouts addressing the issue to the pier recently, provided by the Sarasota nonprofit organization Save Our Seabirds Inc.

The handouts describe how to properly free a bird that has been accidentally hooked.

Those who need help can call Save Our Seabirds Inc. at 941-388-3010. There is also an employee at the Skyway pier available to help at some hours of the day.

"I asked them to pass it out to every angler, that will help also," said Bystrom.

Bystrom and her husband go out in a boat every Sunday to rescue downed birds near the pier. Last Sunday, they rescued five, and have rescued as many as 24 in one day.

She posts news about her work on a Facebook page called "Don't Cut The Line." "Getting this word out is making people aware of this," she added.

Audubon Florida chapters in Manatee, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have been working with state park managers and Skyway pier concessionaires to reach out to fishermen, said Ann Paul, regional coordinator for Audubon Florida.

Peter Kulder, who oversees the state park, "is very familiar with the issues," said Paul. "He's an absolute super partner to work with on this outreach."

Kulder could not be reached for comment Wednesday at his Dunedin office.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.