MANATEE COUNTY (WFLA) – There are growing concerns for the safety of pelicans in one of Tampa Bay, Florida’s popular fishing spots – along with birds being injured by fishing line and hooks, there have been more than a dozen disturbing reports of pelicans that appear to have been scalped with a knife or other sharp object.

Representatives for the local nonprofit organization Friends of the Pelicans say they’ve rescued hundreds of birds over the last few months.

The South Skyway Fishing Pier is the longest in the world. For trained bird rescuers, it’s arguably the most dangerous in the region, specifically for pelicans.

“The reason it is so bad is because the pier is so long,” Friends of the Pelicans Vice Chair Kim Begay said. “It is the longest fishing pier in the world and there are just nonstop people lined up. There is a corridor between the condemned span and the fishing pier. It is literally a flyway that is just an entanglement waiting to happen because you have all these lines in the strip of water and these pelicans are just zooming through.”

Begay says there are around 100 pelican rescues each week.

“I would say maybe 45 to 50% end up in rehab and the rest, we are able to release on the spot after we remove hook and line,” Begay explained. “Of the ones that go to rehab, I would say probably about 40 to 50% don’t make it back out. They have to be euthanized or they have a tear in the pouch that is not repairable or they have a fracture of the wing and it is not repairable.”

In recent weeks, Begay says rescuers have noticed a disturbing new trend. Seventeen pelicans have been found scalped.

“I don’t know who is doing it and why. I just wish they would leave the pelicans alone. It is extremely disturbing. One of our local rehabbers said absolutely 100% it looks like a fillet knife,” said Begay.

Officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) tell Nexstar’s WFLA there’s an ongoing criminal investigation.

“The FWC has received reports of pelicans being intentionally injured at the Skyway Fishing Pier. FWC officers are currently investigating these reports and we encourage the public to report these violations to the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-3922. Callers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a reward,” said FWC Officer Adam Brown.

Officer Brown says potential charges range from animal cruelty to migratory bird violations.

“The FWC takes seabird conservation seriously. We have been working closely with our partners including the Florida Department of Transportation, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and United States Fish and Wildlife Service to address this situation,” Brown said.

“The FWC is helping by increasing law enforcement patrols in this area and working to educate people fishing in the area about what to do if they hook a pelican. Our FWC biologists have been in direct contact with local organizations who are actively involved in removing entangled fishing line from pelicans at the Skyway Pier. We are working hard to reduce these incidents through educating people about responsible fishing practices and what to do if they hook a bird while fishing.”

Brown said additional information on seabird conservation can be found on the FWC website.

In regards to the growing entanglement concerns, Begay feels education is key in preventing more deaths.

However, some fisherman feel there’s no real solution.

“As far as I see it, there is no cure for them because the birds are always gonna be here, the fish are always going to be here and we are always going to be here,” said angler Gene Metzger.

Officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said they’re aware of the recreation-related injuries to birds at Skyway Fishing Pier State Park. A spokesperson sent this statement on Monday:

“The agency is actively working with our partners to determine appropriate further steps to protect wildlife. We work with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on wildlife protection regulations, the Florida Department of Transportation on bridge ownership and maintenance and the park concessionaire Pier Associates on staff and education to mitigate issues and determine appropriate further steps to protect birds that are at risk in this area.

DEP has implemented several measures to address this issue. Some of these measures are complete, while others are still ongoing. Among them, DEP is:

  • Increasing oversight and site visits from park manager and other staff; effective Feb. 3.
  • Discontinuing the sale of sabiki fishing rigs onsite; effective Feb. 5.
  • Amending the park’s operating procedure to limit the number of fishing rods to three per angler; effective Feb. 5.
  • Installing cameras on park buildings and additional lighting to the end of the south pier; ongoing.
  • Increasing concessionaire employee bird-rescue staff to 40 hours per week and directing that employee to coordinate additional volunteer work; ongoing.
  • Replacing and updating signage on the pier – including new signs indicating the three-line limit as well as interpretive messaging that helps anglers understand that increased pelican entanglement could result in reduced fishing access; ongoing.

We will continue to evaluate the situation and implement additional necessary measures to protect wildlife in this area.”