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Mooring field seeks permits

Several agencies will weigh the environmental impact, which backers say is minimal.

By NICK JOHNSON
Published May 13, 2007


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GULFPORT - The City Council recently passed a proposal to install a mooring field in Boca Ciega Bay, and the city has proceeded to the permitting phase.

The next step is submitting a proposal to Pinellas County, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and two other state agencies, and federal agencies. Each will consider the environmental impact of the mooring field.

The mooring field would be a first for Pinellas County but likely not the last. With the increasing value of waterfront property and a shortage of boat slips, mooring fields are considered a practical solution for area boaters.

Many other harbors in Florida already have them.

Mooring fields, proponents say, eliminate unregulated anchoring that can lead to derelict vessels and provide access to the shore for liveaboard and seasonal visitors. If properly managed, they have little effect on the environment, said Andy Nicholson of Challenger Inc.

Nicholson is the engineer responsible for designing the proposed mooring field in Boca Ciega Bay. The only physical impact of Gulfport's project on the harbor would be a 4-inch cable that the buoy is attached to, he said.

"Mooring fields, I think, are probably far superior environmentally to other types of storage for vessels, " he said.

Once moorings are installed, they have little effect on the bottom-dwelling sea life and sea grass. In an unregulated harbor like Boca Ciega Bay, boaters can drop anchor and stay in the water indefinitely. Anchors can drag along the bottom, damaging the grass and any animal life there, and boats are sometimes abandoned.

The mooring acts as a permanent anchor and allows the harbor authorities to control the quality of vessels allowed to moor there and the length of their stay.

Dennis Frain, harbormaster for Gulfport, said the mooring field will allow maintenance of the bay with the same care used at the marina, where vessels must pass an inspection and use pumpout facilities to dispose of waste.

"What you have out there now is unregulated vessels. God knows what they're pumping out there, " Frain said. "If they fail the inspection, they won't be able to use the mooring field. It's going to be a privilege to use."

Dr. Frank Muller-Karger, a professor in the marine science program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said that with proper attention and planning, mooring fields can be a good alternative for boating access in the area.

"They are used as a solution in many places around the world. I think it's worth looking into for certain, " he said. "If it's done properly it can be very environmentally friendly."

Richard Tanner, the harbormaster in Marathon, oversees mooring fields in Boot Key Harbor. He said the harbor has more than 200 buoys, the last of which were installed two weeks ago.

"The only impact you have is the initial drilling, and then nothing touches the bottom, " Tanner said. "It's been extremely positive for the overall harbor, the water quality and the benthic sea bottom life."

Gulfport wants to provide 50 moorings initially, followed by another 50, divided into long-term, seasonal and short-term use.

City officials hope the mooring field would attract more boaters to the area, which could translate into more income for local businesses. Jim O'Reilly, the director of leisure services for the city, said the people attracted to the mooring field will boost downtown Gulfport.

He hopes that if permitting goes smoothly, the moorings can be in place about a year from now.

Nick Johnson can be reached at nickjohnson@sptimes.com or 893-8361.

[Last modified May 12, 2007, 19:21:39]


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