The Flagler County Commission last week approved a manatee protection plan to address the concerns of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The Flagler County Manatee Protection Plan, together with the Intracoastal Waterway manatee speed zones, are intended to provide long term protection of manatees and their habitat within manatee accessible waterways,” said Tim Telfer, Flagler County Public Lands and Natural Resources Manager. “The plan is now in effect throughout Flagler County.”
Cities can choose to develop their own individual plan rather than follow the Flagler County plan, which can be reviewed here.
“This plan is comprised of comprehensive documents that address manatee biology, public education development and outreach measures, as well as an increased law enforcement presence at waterway speed zones,” Telfer said. “These documents also address measures to locate future development in areas that reduce the likelihood of impacts to manatees from watercraft.”
Waterway manatee speed zones are now in effect. Warm season speed zones are in effect from May 1 to September 7 for boats and other watercraft on the Intracoastal Waterway. Slow speed zones are primarily from north of the Lehigh Canal to just south of State Road 100 and from the canals south of State Road 100 to Gamble Rogers State Park. The specific zone areas can be viewed here.
The county has been under mandate to develop a plan since 2006. That year the county was subject of a Biological Opinion from Fish and Wildlife to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, recommending denial of five multi boating-dock projects in Flagler County, for lack of a manatee protection plan. Two manatees were killed in collisions with boats in Flagler in 2003, 2006, and 2007. In 2007, Fish and Wildlife identified Flagler within its Manatee Management Plan as
having little or no manatee protection regulations, opening the way to a recommendation for speed zones. Since the 2006 notice from FWC outlining manatee concerns in Flagler County waters, seven manatees have died from watercraft impacts as of April 15, with no documented deaths since 2012.
Despite the relatively low number of watercraft manatee deaths in comparison to other coastal counties, state and federal authorities insisted on a number of manatee protection measures before regulatory development permits would be issued again. In 2010 the county first convened a committee to study various possibilities and recommend an approach. The committee was heavily stacked with boating interests. The plan has gone through numerous versions, drawing some criticism along the way from environmentalists, manatee-protection advocates and the Fish and Wildlife Commission for not being comprehensive enough.
The county’s Manatee Protection Plan now contains a number of sections intended to increase protections to manatees. These sections include an educational component, a plan for enforcement of watercraft speed zones, biological information regarding manatees and a description of the habitat and any attractants within Flagler County. One of the
key sections is the Boating Facility Siting Plan, intended to ensure future watercraft are moored and operate away from manatee congregation areas by designating areas where additional boating facility slips may be authorized and where they should not be authorized.
Flagler County’s Boating Facilities Siting Plan contains maps of every section of the ICW and Crescent and Dead Lakes. The shorelines of these water bodies are categorized by one of five designations: Conservation, Unrestricted (referenced only in portions of the Lehigh Canal), Moderate, Non-Preferred, and Preferred. Each category then has a slip to shoreline ratio assigned to it, from one slip per 100 feet of shoreline to five slips to 100 feet of shoreline to no restrictions. These slip ratios dictate the intensity of growth of waterfront areas in the future.
Flagler Beach, Palm Coast, Beverly Beach and Marineland may opt out of the siting plan review process if they wish.
Key to the manatee protection measures are the seasonal and at times controversial watercraft speed zones regulating 5.4 miles of the 18.6 miles of the Flagler County Intracoastal Waterway. In April, Fish and Wildlife added another half mile of speed zone. This new zone included the western portion of a zone that had only previously addressed the eastern area of the Intracoastal, in the vicinity of the Lehigh Canal.
“We are very pleased to have this protection plan in place,” said County Commission Chair Barbara Revels. “We have been fortunate in that we have not had a manatee death here in a number of years and we want to keep that trend going.”