Scott Calleson, a biologist with the Imperiled Species Management Section of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, discusses proposed manatee protection zones May 28 at the Barrier Islands Governmental Council meeting.
MADEIRA BEACH – A final action by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on proposed manatee protection zones along the Intracoastal Waterway in Pinellas County could come as soon as February.
A Local Rule Review Committee is about halfway through its process of taking public opinion on 21 proposed zones where boaters would be required to operate at reduced or idle speed.
Scott Calleson, a biologist with the Imperiled Species Management Section of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told members of the Barrier Island Governmental Council May 28 that his office would prepare a report on those suggestions that would be handed over to the full commission at its September meeting.
From that point, there would be at least two public hearings before a final action in February or April.
Most of the areas that have been identified are south of Park Boulevard in shallow, sea grass areas. The areas vary in size, he said.
“We’re trying not to affect the (Intracoastal Waterway) channel but if we feel it’s important, there could be some areas affected,” Calleson said.
The only existing manatee protection zones in Pinellas are north of the Courtney Campbell Causeway near the shore northward into Safety Harbor. Idle speed is in effect April 1 to Nov. 15.
The reason for concern in western Pinellas is the number of manatee deaths since 2000, Calleson said.
“Boat-related deaths to manatees were infrequent through the 1990s,” he said. “Since 2000, western Pinellas has had close to 40. So that’s about three per year for the last 12 to 13 years. You might have had three or four in the whole decade of the 1990s.”
Redington Shores Mayor Bert Adams asked if the increase in the local manatee population might be the reason for the increased numbers.
“Red tide and cold weather have affected their numbers,” said Calleson. “They’ve taken some hits, but the information we have is that they’re not crashing. Boat-related mortality is up and has increased tremendously as the cause of death. The indications are that the interaction between boats and manatees has grown faster than the population.”
Calleson said in the mid-2000s, concerns over manatee safety began to increase.
In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife issued a biological opinion identifying the southern half of western Pinellas County, from Park Boulevard south, as an area where it had concerns about lack of manatee protection.
Those concerns have affected state and federal permitting of boat facilities, among other things, which have resulted in a halt to federal permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as state permits and local authorization.
“Large facilities have a high degree of likelihood of affecting manatees,” said Calleson. “So the federal side was not giving their OK for permits. So essentially since 2007, large projects have been on hold.”
About the same time, the FWC developed a state manatee management plan, trying to prioritize what it needs to do at the state level for manatee protection.
The Local Rule Review Committee is the start of the state process.
“Pinellas County formed an LRRC in March and we started meeting with them,” said Calleson. “They’re about half-way through it. When they’re finished they will submit a report back to commission about their recommendations. After that we will start the formal process with a couple of public hearings and then a final action taken by the commission. The final action is probably six to eight months away. So probably sometime in early 2015.”
Members of the local committee are Doug Speeler, Speeler Companies; Bill Allbright, local boater; Dave Travis, Bay Pines Marina; Dave Markett, Florida Fishing Guides Association; Terri Skapik, Woods Consulting; Mark LaPrade, Thunder Marine; Serra Herndon, Tampa Bay Watch; Katie, Tripp, Save The Manatee Club; Elizabeth Fleming, Defenders of Wildlife; Charles White, manatee rescue volunteer; Dave Kandz, St. Petersburg Audubon Society; and Janine Cianciolo, Sierra Club.