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Boat motors decimate sea grass

By Catherine E. Shoichet
Published May 18, 2007


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In aerial photographs of Cockroach Bay, thousands of white, zigzag streaks stand out against a sea-green backdrop.

They are propeller scars - strong evidence, some experts say, that the sea grass is struggling.

"It looks like a desert in some areas, " Hillsborough County Community College biology professor J. Nicholas Ehringer told a group of local planners and scientists last week.

Now officials are considering new boating rules to help Cockroach Bay's dwindling sea grass population bounce back.

The Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission has proposed making Little Cockroach Bay a "pole and troll" zone for five years.

That would require boaters to turn off their combustion motors and use electric trolling motors, push poles or paddles between the Cockroach Bay boat ramp and the mouth of the Little Manatee River.

"We've got some pretty severe levels of scarring out there, " said Gerold Morrison, director of the EPC's environmental resources management division.

The "pole and troll" approach - a first for Hillsborough County - would preserve boaters' access to the area and give sea grass a chance to recover, he said.

EPC officials will present that possibility, along with other parts of the agency's proposed Seagrass Management Plan, at a meeting at 6 p.m. May 31 at the SouthShore Regional Library in Ruskin.

County commissioners, acting as the EPC, will have the final say. They could vote on the proposal this summer, Morrison said.

The proposal has drawn concern from some commercial anglers and charter captains.

In a letter to the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council's Agency on Bay Management, Steve Furman of the Coastal Conservation Association's Tampa chapter stressed that trolling motors should be allowed throughout the area.

"I don't believe in punishing the masses because of a few idiots, " he wrote.

But others argue that restrictions should be even more stringent - and strongly enforced.

"We should be thinking more about the habitat than the fish, " said Gus Muench, a commercial crabber who said he stopped working in Cockroach Bay last year because of the sea grass damage.

Sea grass is a crucial source of food and habitat for marine wildlife, he said. Damage can delay regeneration by decades.

Muench proposed expanding the pole and troll zone to include the entire Cockroach Bay area and designating the area as a federal wildlife sanctuary.

"Let's do something serious that has some meaning, " he told the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council's Agency on Bay Management last week.

Ehringer said another solution could involve a different sort of pole: empty sign posts throughout Cockroach Bay.

The signs, he said, are remnants of an earlier effort to protect sea grass by restricting boating in some areas.

"We still have poles, and every pole has a bird on it just about, " he said. "But no signs ... Boaters can literally go wherever they want."

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or 813 661-2454.

 

If you go

Sea grass plan

The Hillsborough County EPC will discuss its proposed Seagrass Management Plan at 6 p.m. May 31 at the SouthShore Regional Library, 15816 Beth Shields Way, Ruskin.

 

[Last modified May 17, 2007, 07:03:05]


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