St. Pete Beach officials are hoping someone will provide the city a barge to hold its annual fireworks this year so black skimmers nesting at Pinellas County Park don’t get scared off and abandon their babies, potentially dooming them to death.
City commissioners met at a hastily called meeting Thursday, June 4, after Elizabeth Forys, Eckerd College professor of environmental science and biology, expressed concern about the negative effect of the pyrotechnics on the skimmers, and bird supporters from as far away as Washington State bombarded the city with scathing emails.
Earlier this year St. Pete Beach commissioners voted to move the fireworks from Upham Beach off Gulf Boulevard at 68th Avenue, where they’ve been held since 2007, to the more central Pinellas County Park at 4800 Gulf Blvd., in part because many residents couldn’t see the pyrotechnic display very well.
The future of many birds that nest along Florida’s coast is threatened by the loss of habitat and damage to nests by people and animals. Skimmers, striking black and white birds that skim the surface of the water scooping up food with big red and black bills, are listed as a “species of special concern” by the state of Florida.
“Because of their high degree of sensitivity to disturbance and the intensity of recreational use of Florida’s beaches, most colonies in Florida would fail without management,” the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says on its website.
As of Sunday, June 7, there were 155 skimmer nests at Pinellas County Park and five babies, according to Forys.
During their June 4 debate commissioners said the last thing St. Pete Beach wants to do is threaten the birds and the environment. However, they noted that as many as 10,000 local and out-of-town observers gather each year for the fireworks, which are a family tradition dating back for decades. Cancelling them would cause local businesses to lose money and could even result in the birds themselves being the target of retribution, Vice Mayor Terri Finnerty said.
Describing the city’s enthusiasm about the skimmers, Commissioner Rick Falkenstein even waxed poetic, comparing them to “a ballet going on in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Mayor Maria Lowe thanked environmentalists for taking the time to educate the commission about the threat to the nesting birds. “We didn’t know,” she said.
She told the gathering bird advocates said the best option would be to move the fireworks off the beaches entirely and on to an off-shore barge. She called on businesses to step up and donate a barge for the fireworks or for the public to rally via social media to raise money to rent one.
The fireworks are already costing the city $25,000. Hiring a barge could cost another $20,000, Lowe said.
However, Robin Sollie, chief executive of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, told the commissioners that launching fireworks from barges has been problematic in the past, resulting in their being cancelled. In addition, she said no barges were available this close to July 4. “You’re spinning your wheels,” she said.
In the end the commissioners voted to approve Mayor Lowe’s proposal to move the fireworks to a barge or in the absence of a barge, to Upham Beach.
As of Monday, June 8, Lowe said no company had donated a barge. She said “some” money had been donated to rent one, but she did not know how much.