New boating speed zones going up in Chokoloskee Bay to protect manatees

Everglades National Park -- Gulf Coast Visitor Center

815 Oyster Bar Lane, Everglades City, FL

— New manatee speed zones are going up in Chokoloskee Bay in Everglades National Park by the end of the month, park rangers said.

The zones will slow boaters and clear the way for federal officials to lift restrictions on boat dock repair and construction in the Everglades City area.

The restrictions have been in place as part of a 2001 lawsuit settlement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation groups seeking greater protections for the endangered sea cow.

Under the new speed zones, boaters will have to travel at slow speed in most of Chokoloskee Bay, which currently is zone-free.

Coming from Everglades City, for example, boaters will be able to travel 30 mph only along the north edge of the bay, will have to slow down at the mouth of the Turner River and then can speed up again to 30 mph.

Slow speed, a step above idle speed, means boaters have to be off plane and can create only a minimum wake.

The plan has the backing of a boaters group, but manatee advocates are skeptical.

A grassroots group of business owners, boaters and fishermen came up with the plan the National Park Service is putting in place.

“They’d rather not see it (the new speed zone), but it’s not something that’s going to cause them a great deal of grief,” Everglades for Everyone President Max Schultz said.

The zones aren’t enough for the Save the Manatee Club, a lead plaintiff in the 2000 lawsuit alleging inadequate protection for the manatee, said executive director Pat Rose.

“It’s really not what manatees need to be safeguarded,” he said.

Rose said the group will be watching closely to see whether the new speed zones work to keep boats from colliding with manatees.

Scientists tracking manatees equipped with radio transmitters have found that manatees seem to like to hang out at the Turner River.

Manatees set a record in 2009 for the number of deaths in Florida waters and for the number of deaths attributed to collisions with boats.

Biologists tallied 429 manatee deaths, beating the 2006 record of 417.

Of those, 97 manatee deaths were attributed to collisions with boats, beating the 2002 record of 94.

Collier County posted five manatee deaths in boat collisions; Lee County led the state with 19.

The new speed zones won’t be enforced right away, the park’s Gulf Coast district ranger Raymond Little said.

Instead, patrols will focus on educating boaters about the change before they start ticketing violators, he said.

“For this to be changed all of a sudden, it’s going to be a work in progress,” Little said.

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Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.

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