Boaters may face new manatee rules
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Boaters who cruise the Alafia River, Homosassa River and Terra Ceia Bay may soon face new restrictions designed to reduce collisions with manatees.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission gave tentative approval this week to new speed zones and other regulations in the Alafia in Hillsborough County and Terra Ceia Bay in Manatee County and to new no-entry zones in the Blue Waters section of the Homosassa River in Citrus County.
The commission, meeting this week in St. Augustine, also approved new restrictions in four other counties -- Sarasota, Charlotte, Miami-Dade and Indian River -- although they rejected new rules in Palm Beach, Martin and Volusia counties.
The new restrictions were prompted by the settlement of a lawsuit last year accusing the state of not doing enough to protect manatees from speeding boats.
So far this year preliminary figures show 54 manatee deaths statewide have been blamed on boat collisions, according to Allison McDonald of the Florida Marine Research Institute. This time last year there were 40.
But boating groups contend that the increase is not the fault of the state's 900,000 boaters as much as it is a byproduct of the manatees' burgeoning population. The current population is now estimated at more than 3,000, more than double the estimates made 30 years ago when the manatee was first classified as endangered.
Boating group representatives reminded commissioners that the settlement requires them only to consider the restrictions, not adopt them. After public hearings in July, the commission will take a final vote on the restrictions in September.
This is far from the state's first attempt to protect manatees by curtailing boaters' free use of the water. For instance, the state first designated manatee protection zones in the Alafia in 1979.
Despite seasonal speed restrictions from the mouth of the river to the U.S. 41 bridge, "this is a hot spot in the sense that we've had a number of manatee deaths here," said Brad Hartman of the commission staff. In the past decade four of the dead manatees found in the Alafia were killed by boats.
Originally the commission staff had proposed a year-round 25-mph speed limit from the U.S. 41 bridge to the U.S. 301 bridge. But complaints from boaters, anglers and skiers convinced them to scale that back so that the Alafia from I-75 to U.S. 301 will continue to be unregulated.
Commissioners voted for the revised restrictions even though Suzanne Tarr of the Save the Manatee Club accused them of creating "more of a water-ski and high-speed sport zone" rather than a manatee protection zone. However, commission chairman John Rood said he was "concerned for the record that we're not going far enough."
The regulations approved for Terra Ceia Bay, which lies near the mouth of Tampa Bay, mark the first time the state has tried to impose manatee protections in Manatee County.
Initially the commission staff considered limiting speeds throughout the bay to 25 mph or less. But a February workshop in Bradenton drew 166 people, a larger crowd than any of the state's other workshops on the proposed rules. Many complained that the regulations would hurt waterfront property values and curtail water sports.
So the staff altered the restrictions so that the middle of Terra Ceia Bay would remain unregulated. Hartman described it as an attempt "not to have all of a sudden 100 percent of all the animals protected in there. This is our attempt to ease in there and improve the situation."
Despite manatee activists' complaints, the commission approved the restrictions. When it came to the Blue Waters area, though, the boating groups were the ones complaining.
The commission staff had proposed extending the current no-entry zone, in effect from November to May, farther west to near the River Pavilion. But boating advocates said that would eliminate areas that are popular with saltwater anglers. Nevertheless, the commissioners approved it.
The commission spent most of Wednesday and Thursday debating the new regulations county by county. Unlike past commission meetings dealing with manatees, no one was shouted down or booed. Instead both sides did all their yelling the day before the public discussion, said Rood and Colleen Castille, an aide to Gov. Jeb Bush.
Rood, Castille and the commission's new executive director, Ken Haddad, spent more than three hours Tuesday conferring behind closed doors with environmental activists and representatives from boating groups.
"It was their chance to scream and shout," Rood said. Jim Kalvin of the boating group Standing Watch joked that "when chairman Rood pulled out his last hair, he adjourned the meeting."
Next year the settlement requires the commission to consider restricting boaters in other areas frequented by manatees, including on the Pinellas County side of Tampa Bay.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire