Boaters beware: Spring is time for active manatee zones

Andrea Stetson
Special to The News-Press
Outside the channel in Estero Bay is now slow speed until November 15.

Boaters used to zipping across Estero Bay all winter have to stop. April 1 is when manatee zones go in effect in areas throughout Southwest Florida. One of the areas with the most manatee zones is Estero Bay. Until November 15 boaters will have to go slow speed when they are not in the channel. It’s all part of an effort to keep vessel collisions with manatees at a minimum. 
   As the water warms up the manatees that had been wintering in the warmer rivers are heading out into the bay. They are coming from the Orange River and by the FPL plant. They are coming from the inlets by Lover’s Key and the Imperial River and Estero River and other places where the water was a bit warmer. These manatees are ready to spend the warmer weather munching on sea grass in the bay.
   “The manatees are just venturing out from the warmer areas into the grass flats for food,” said Brian Norris, public information office, FWC division of law enforcement. They (manatee zones) are in effect to help minimize vessel impacts with the manatees.”
  Local boaters say they are ready to slow down, even if it is an inconvenience.
“Everything takes longer especially when you want to get across the bay,” said boater Gary Armith. “But it is something we have to do every year.”
    “It affects everybody,” said Dave Hanson, a charter boat captain based in 
Bonita Springs.  “It makes it where everything outside the channel is slow speed so anytime you are fishing along the shorelines all that whole area is all slow speed to get out to it. It’s a big deal for the people who come out of the Estero River when they want to make that short cut across to Big Carlos Pass.”
   Hanson said he can’t add more time to his fishing charter tours so he finds other places to fish.
   “Or if I want to fish by Mound Key I run the channel all the way to Mound Key and then idle around the island.”
     Hanson said one more effect he sees when the manatee zones are in effect are more personal watercraft in the channel because they can no longer zip around the bay.
   “They are all strung out up and down the channel,” Hanson described.
    Norris said most people are compliant with the regulations, but there are some problem areas.
   “Starvation Flats is the area north of Big Carlos Pass,” Norris describes. “There is a channel that runs from Big Carlos Pass up to Mullock Creek and the Estero River and that is the only channel so if you are coming south you have to go around Coon Key.  And a lot of people cut across Starvation Flats so they don’t have to go all the way south to Coon Key and back up. If you are coming south you could have to go all the way south to Coon Key and back up.”
     Norris said officers first try to educate people, but those that are repeat offenders or locals that know the rules and break them can receive a $90 fine.
  “We also understand that these changes may catch people off guard,” Norris explained. “So we want to make sure everybody understands especially in the first week or so. We want people to look at the signs with the orange circles in them. It will give them all the information.”
   “We find that the majority of people know there are a lot of manatee zones,” he continued. “Especially if they boat in that area, they do know it changes April 1. But there are visitors or people that don’t go on the area a lot and we want to remind them to look at the sign and see what it says. It will have very good information on it.”
   Since manatees spent most of the time underwater, they are often hard to detect.  The FWC also has some tips for boaters to help them. These include:
•    Wear polarized sunglasses to help spot manatees.
•    Look for large circles on the water, also known as manatee footprints, indicating the presence of a manatee below.
•    Look for a snout sticking up out of the water.
•    Follow posted manatee zones while boating.


Manatee zones and maps are available at
Anyone who sees an injured, distressed, sick or dead manatee is asked to call the FWC Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or dial #FWC or *FWC on a cellphone.