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.
- Read the Fish and Wildlife Commission Staff Answer to Flagler
- Read Flagler’s Recommendations to Fish & Wildlife
- Flagler Manatee Committee Report Concludes: Against Speed Zones. Just “Education.”
- Hanging With Manatees
- How a Boating Guru Turned Manatee Advocate
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.