Manatee slow-speed zones are as much a part of Southwest Florida’s boating landscape as mangroves and mud flats.
Now, more fishermen would have to throttle back under a new rule under review by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The state agency is considering eliminating most of the permits that allow commercial fishermen and fishing guides to travel up to 20 mph in the slow-speed zones.
Public hearings could be scheduled in October and a decision made in early 2010 to not renew the two-year permits, said Conservation Commission biologist Scott Calleson.
While the exemption has generated mixed feelings among some fishing guides, Bill Walsh is not one of them.
“It is a major impact if they do (take away the exemption),” the Marco Island-based charter boat captain said.
Walsh has one of 37 slow-speed exemption permits issued in Collier County, according to state figures.
None of the permits is issued in Lee County, where state manatee zones mirror federal manatee zones. The state exemptions don’t apply in federal zones.
The exemptions only apply when fishermen or fishing guides are using their boats for work. They don’t apply on weekends and holidays.
In Collier County, the exemption permit applies to slow-speed zones in waters west of Holloway Island, in Henderson Creek, Hall Bay, Johnson Bay, around Isles of Capri, in the Marco River and Caxambas Bay and Goodland Bay.
As of December 2008, the Conservation Commission had issued 176 of the exemption permits to 129 fishing guides and commercial fishermen statewide. Some of them have more than one permit or in more than one county.
Under a recommendation in Florida’s 2007 statewide manatee protection plan, the state would issue exemption permits only for commercial fishermen setting their nets.
“You can’t do that at idle speed because the fish will move faster than you,” Organized Fishermen of Florida executive director Jerry Sansom said.
Sansom said, though, that exemption should also continue to apply to blue crab fishermen setting their traps.
The exemption’s original intent was to allow fishermen to set their nets. After a 1994 decision by Florida voters to limit nets in state waters, commercial fishermen turned to guiding and crabbing to make a living and pushed to continue getting an exemption.
Save the Manatee Club executive director Pat Rose said the exemption was a good idea when it started out but has outlived its original purpose.
“I think it’s one of those things,” Rose said.
He said the exemption leads to confusion among boaters about obeying the slow-speed zones and raises the risk to manatees.
That’s as important as ever with manatee deaths on track to beat 2006’s record of 417 deaths, Rose said.
The Florida Guides Association has not taken a formal poll of its members on the issue and has no formal position.
But leaders of the group said the exemption has raised concerns in the past about whether it is fair to give exemptions to guides but not to recreational fishermen, who are often aligned with guides in political battles over fishing restrictions.
“I think it might cause some bad feelings toward us,” said Tony Polizos, the group’s regional coordinator in Everglades City.
Walsh, the Marco Island guide, said that not having the exemption means he would be able to fit only one charter trip in per day rather than the typical two trips per day.
Not having the exemption would mean a 30 percent hit to his revenue, Walsh said.
He said making a living fishing in Florida already is getting more difficult with potential rules restricting catches of permit and grouper.
“It’s just more of the same,” Walsh said.
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.