Manatees gain 3 havens in Tampa Bay in winter
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
To protect manatees, parts of Tampa Bay near three power plants will be put off-limits to boaters, swimmers, divers and anglers for half the year, from Oct. 1 to March 31, federal officials announced Saturday.
During that time, boats would be limited to slow or idle speeds in the areas adjacent to Tampa Bay's three power plants -- in Tampa, Apollo Beach and Weedon Island -- as an additional step to spare manatees from being harassed, hurt or killed, federal officials said.
The headwaters of the Homosassa River in Citrus County, an area known as Blue Waters, will also be put off-limits to all forms of human activity from Oct. 1 to March 31, federal wildlife officials said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's announcement came as a response to a federal judge's order that the agency pinpoint waterways around the state where "there is substantial evidence that there is imminent danger of a taking of one or more manatees," meaning they would require emergency action to protect them.
Officials with the Save the Manatee Club have been pushing the federal agency to focus attention on the Caloosahatchee River in Lee County, because last year Lee led the state in manatee deaths from boat collisions with 23. They are also concerned about the St. Johns River in Duval County, which recently saw a spike in the number of manatee deaths.
Federal officials are sufficiently concerned about manatee deaths in both counties that they have refused to issue new dock permits there. However, the agency balked at designating parts of those rivers as off-limits to boats. Agency officials said they will simply monitor the situation.
Instead, they declared that manatees are in imminent danger near Tampa Bay's power plants and in the warm headwaters of the Homosassa River -- areas where comparatively few manatees have been run over by boats.
Often hundreds of manatees are attracted to springs and power plants in the winter because they offer a warm water refuge for the cold-sensitive animals. Fish are attracted to those refuges as well.
"Where the manatees congregate is also a pretty good place to go fishing," said federal wildlife agency spokesman Chuck Underwood.
The fishing boats tend to drive the manatees out into cooler waters, sometimes killing the younger manatees that cannot cope with the cold, Underwood said. There have also been cases of manatees becoming tangled in fishing line, he said.
"Those are the types of things that concern us in the Tampa Bay area," Underwood said.
Manatee advocates said Tampa Bay and the Homosassa River, while important, are not the areas with the greatest need for regulation.
"The service continues to stick their head in the sand about the areas that really need it, like the Caloosahatchee," said Patti Thompson of the Save the Manatee Club.
Thompson said manatee advocates will take their complaints about the federal agency to top Bush administration officials at a meeting -- also taking place per the judge's orders -- scheduled to occur in Washington, D.C., later this week.
The agency's announcement concerns areas that already were scheduled to be named as manatee refuges or sanctuaries by November, although the new regulations would not have taken effect as quickly as they will now.
Sanctuaries are areas where all waterborne activities, including boating, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, swimming, skiing, snorkeling and diving, are prohibited. Refuges are areas where those activities are limited, for instance by requiring boaters to slow down to idle or slow speed.
Around Tampa Bay, the winter sanctuaries and refuges would be:
-- The warm-water outfall of Florida Power's power plant at Weedon Island, about 181 acres, would be put off-limits to all human activity. Also a 75-acre strip north of the power plant, in the South Gandy Channel, would become a slow speed zone for boaters while the sanctuary is in place.
-- The warm-water outfall for Tampa Electric Co.'s Big Bend power plant at Apollo Beach, an area of about 76 acres, would be put off-limits to human activity. In addition, the waters in about 231 acres adjacent to the outfall would become an idle-speed zone for boats during the winter.
-- The warm-water outfall of Tampa Electric Co.'s Port Sutton power plant in Tampa, an area of about 2.7 acres, would be off-limits to humans. In addition, the 97 acres of waterway around that sanctuary would be designated as an idle-speed zone.
-- The Blue Waters sanctuary would cover a little more than 4 acres adjacent to Homosassa Springs State Park. As with the three Tampa Bay sanctuaries, all human activities on the water would be forbidden Oct. 1 to March 31.
To find out more
For information on the sanctuaries and refuges, go to http://northflorida.fws.gov/Manatee/manatees.htm
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