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Revving Up Speed Zones, State Tells Flagler: Manatees More Endangered Than Boaters

| September 14, 2010

Propellor bait. (Sean McCann)

Thank you for sharing, but we won’t be listening to your recommendations about manatee-protecting speed zones in Flagler County.

That sums up the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staff’s response to a Flagler County committee set up to review speed zones the wildlife commission is proposing. The response suggests that five new speed zones will be likely be established in the Intracoastal Waterway.

Back in April, the wildlife commission announced that it was considering adding or expanding at least five boating speed zones to protect manatees in the Flagler County portion of the Intracoastal Waterway. The commission can’t impose new rules without listening to local residents first. In accordance with law, the Flagler County Commission appointed a rules review committee, ostensibly split between manatee and boating advocates (but clearly favoring boaters).

The committee met seven times from May to July and submitted its recommendations to the commission. Given the make-up of the committee, the recommendations were not surprising: shorten or reject the proposed zones, and don’t create any where the commission hadn’t proposed speed zones, but had asked the committee for input.

Late last week, the wildlife commission staff released its responses to the Flagler committee’s report. Officially, the wildlife staff concurred with four of the nine recommendations the rules review committee supported. But that’s putting it kindly. There were, in fact, just three areas of agreement, and none of those three were controversial to start with: they were the three zones where the wildlife commission hadn’t proposed anything specific, but was merely asking the local committee to share some input. The zones were in Marineland (where people and manatees are few), in northern Palm Coast and at Fox’s Cut, near Herschel King Park. In each case, the local committee was against speed zones, saying manatee traffic in those areas was low to moderate. In each case, the wildlife commission agreed.

A fourth recommendation looked like an area of agreement, and is officially listed as such, but there’s little agreement there. It concerns Smith Creek south of Gamble Rogers State Park, by the Volusia County Line. There are speed zones there. The commission was recommending changing them from year-round zones to seasonal zones. The speed limits of 30 mph in daylight and 25 mph at night would apply only in the warm months. The local committee agreed, but only if it redefined the warm season by shortening it, rather absurdly, from seven months to three (from May through July, instead of from April through October). The wildlife commission staff didn’t go for that. And it is recommending that speed zones in that area be lowered to 25 mph whether in daylight or at night. The local committee would likely have opposed that.

The fish and wildlife staff rejected outright five other recommendations by the local committee—four of which having most substantially to do with explicit speed zones.

Palm Coast, near the Hammock Dunes Bridge: The wildlife commission initially recommended a 1.5-mile speed zone stretching from 300 feet south of the bridge north. The local committee wanted just 400 feet around the bridge. The wildlife commission staff rejected that, but reduced the length of the zone to just under 1 mile.

South Creek, North of Lehigh Canal: The wildlife commission is proposing a 1.2-mile speed zone in warm months, stretching from the southern edge of Lehigh Canal to just north of Silver Lake Marina. The local committee wanted no speed zone at all “because there was no watercraft-related manatee mortality data in the area and the potential negative impact that a speed zone in this area would have on Sea Ray Boats.” The local committee’s response, explicitly contradictory (was the rejection based on protecting Sea Ray or on protecting manatees?), revealed a running theme in the local committee’s analysis: if actual deaths of manatees could not be proven as resulting from boating collisions, manatee protection was not necessary. The wildlife commission, however, doesn’t focus only on manatee deaths (or carcasses), but on manatee health overall—including collisions that don’t result in deaths. Many a manatee bears the scars of propeller slashes.

“Although staff acknowledges this zone could have an impact on Sea Ray,” the wildlife commission staff wrote, “staff does not believe the potential impacts to Sea Ray outweigh the reduced risks the zone would provide. Based on information provided by Sea Ray, approximately 6 boats are tested per week. Staff does not agree with the logic of not reducing the risks created by the majority of boats so as to avoid potential impacts on the relatively small number of boat testing trips by Sea Ray. Plus, as staff noted to the LRRC as well as Sea Ray during the LRRC meetings, FWC has the ability to issue a permit to Sea Ray to allow continued testing even if a zone is created.” LRRC is the acronym for the official name of the Local Rules Review Committee.

Smith Creek between Lehigh Canal and the State Route 100 Bridge: The wildlife commission is recommending a 1.5-mile speed zone from the southern edge of Lehigh Canal to 300 feet south of the SR 100 bridge. The local committee wanted to leave the main channel unregulated, again because no manatee deaths were reported, and because speed zones would create “congestion” resulting in a “boating hazard.” It’s unusual to read an analysis of speed limits as creating, as opposed to reducing, hazards. The wildlife staff rejected both reasonings outright. The commission staff “believes this area warrants a shore-to-shore Slow Speed zone because the area had high manatee use as well as moderate to high manatee-boat coincidence (approximately twice the county average) and manatee-“fast boat” coincidence (approximately twice the county average). Based on the number of perinatal deaths recovered in this area, this portion of Flagler County, like the Palm Coast residential canals, is likely a calving and/or resting area for mother and calf pairs.”

Smith Creek near Gamble Rogers: The wildlife commission is recommending a 1.8-mile speed zone in warm months from Gable Rogers’ boat launch basin north in Smith Creek. The local committee recommended an undefined, small zone, a recommendation fish and wildlife rejected. The two sides also disagreed over the definition of the warm-month season.

The fish and wildlife staff’s last disagreement was over the definition of the warm season. “Based on the manatee aerial survey data, manatee use is highest from April in to September,” the staff report concluded. “Because the heaviest portion of the summer boating season extends through Labor Day, staff recommends that this major boating period be included in the designated warm season.”

The wildlife staff’s recommendations must go before the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission board on Dec. 1 or 2 at the board’s meeting in Weston. The board may decide then to establish the recommended speed zones. If it does, the proposed rules will be drafted as such, and at least one public hearing would be held in Flagler County sometime in early 2011. Following that hearing, the commission would either adopt the rules, amend them or reject them. The speed zones, in other words, aren’t going up tomorrow.

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9 Responses for “Revving Up Speed Zones, State Tells Flagler: Manatees More Endangered Than Boaters”

  1. art woosley says:

    Congratulations must go out to FWC for standing up for OUR manatee’s, and OUR environment.

    By far the most disturbing part of this matter, was the fact that TWO of our local mayors were on this Flagler County committee, one might think at least the one from P.C.who was the Chair (an influential position ), would have had more important duties on his plate, but I guess not .

    It certainly was a controversial committee from the start, to say the least.

  2. JR says:

    Why don’t we eliminate all boats on navigable waters? Or all combustion engines for that matter. Why not get rid of all, repeat: all, technology because animals are sometimes injured by its use. The survival of the fittest people somehow forget the defining tacit of evolution. I wonder what would have happened if the so-called evolved species had a “commission” to protect them? (btw: all of the finches on the Galapagos islands were just that, finches. No eagles, or parakeets, or mocking birds, or big-fat-park pigeons.)

  3. Charlie says:

    Some of the committee members, had no right to be on the committee. One, person, was a boater, who even before being on the committee, was an announced defender of keeping the speed limit was it is presently. He was nominated as a manatee representative. His claim to being familar with manatees, you ask? He was in the water, washing his boat, (I hope with non toxic soap), when one moved past him. Nice going, Ed!!

  4. John Coffey says:

    There are simply too many Manatee in Florida waters. I travel to the Keys every summer and I personnaly see every Manatee the State (3,000) reports we have at least 3 times. In some areas like around the Cape they are so thick that they actually bump into each other as they swim. This summer I actually had one shut down the air conditioning on my boat because the stupid thing block my raw water intake. I recomend that the FWC inititate an annual hunting season on these mamals just like they do for gators. The damage they do the vegatation and bottom would result in an arrest from the FWC if they paid taxes and had a registration sticker on thier port side ike my boat does. Enough is enough, the State is in for a shock, people are getting fed up with intrusions they keep putting inplace to justify thier existance. I say fired half of the peple working for the State Agencies who do nothing for me but continue to take away my personal freedoms.

  5. Lynn says:

    Personal freedoms are great. Individual rights are protected by our Constitution and were elevated in status by the Declaration.
    But really- those currently glorifying individual freedoms at every level keep failing to honor the other side of the coin, that being the responsibilities of living in communities- family, city, state, nation, planet. Have we forgotten that our liberties are curbed when they infringe on the rights of others? Rightly or wrongly, laws have determined that is in our nation’s best interest to preserve ecological diversity. Speed limit laws on our beautiful local waterway are NOT just there to spoil one boater’s fun, but to preserve it for all of us.

    The future health of the planet deserves some consideration. How do people not get that as human population increases, our own freedoms to do exactly as we please (and to hell with everyone else) is either going to shrink or create conflict? This is just one of those conflicts.

  6. Kip Durocher says:

    @ John Coffey

    It is only Wednesday, but I award your post the

    “Doozie of the Week”

    JR is a close 2nd.

  7. R U Kidding Me says:

    I saw sereral animals on the roadside that have been hit by cars. Maybe we should have “idle zones” on the highways too. We could all take bikes or walk to work…. Oh that right, If Sea Ray can’t test the boats and closes I won’t need to go to work.

  8. n says:

    Once again I would like to point out that these manatees are not what they seem They seem to favor hanging out not in the pristine uninhabited areas of the county, but in the most exclusive and upper class addresses. Why else would the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission declare manatee speed zones behind every McMansion on the ICW that has a boat lift behind it? It couldn’t be that the Florida government are just using them as an excuse to suck up to the wealthy again, could it??

    I say to hell with these social climbing beasts. They have gotten more attention and political favors despite their few numbers than any creature with a prehistoric brain ever, except of course for the Teabaggers.

  9. John I says:

    Decreased engine noise and increased safety resulting from slower boat speeds would probably make the waterfront homes MORE desirable. Mayor Netts was quick to spread the fear that speed limits COULD threaten property values. If only Mayor Netts was as concerned about falling home values resulting from the inability of the local population to earn a reasonable income. Our unemployment rate leads the state, and historically has done so. Palm Coast and Flagler’s restriction on small businesses, sign policy, excessive fees, their hide-the-business building codes, etc. all crimp small business viability. You would think our local leaders would understand that small business is the foundation of job creation, the cornerstone of any viable economy, and therefore focus on fostering new small businesses, instead of focusing on the boating habits of the rich and not-so-famous.

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