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Manatee concerns around Pinellas Bayway Bridge

By JOHN HOWELL The Daily Fray
December 1, 2014 7:15 pm

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The new Pinellas Bayway Bridge (in 2013) replaced a drawbridge (rear), expanding passage for boaters. (Via TBO.com)

St. Pete Beach wants Blind Pass restored to a proposed list of manatee protection zones in western Pinellas County, and state wildlife officials are considering the request. St. Pete Beach also wants the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to include waters around the new Pinellas Bayway Bridge. That's a new conversation.

The Pinellas Bayway Bridge was not in the proposal in April when the FWC named 21 zones of concern for sea cows.

"When FWC initially identified areas where staff believed zones might be warranted, it was based on a review of information available to the FWC at that time," said Diane Hirth of the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation.

"The fact that an area was not identified by staff does not necessarily mean there is no reason for a zone in that area."

Blind Pass was on the list for a warm-season zone but was excluded in a final proposal presented to FWC commissioners Nov. 20 in Key Largo. Part of the reason was local slow-zones are in place during weekends and holidays, when boating is busiest, according the FWC's final proposal.

FWC commissioners were told St. Pete Beach elected officials unanimously supported Blind Pass and wanted to add a warm-season zone around the Pinellas Bayway Bridge, which straddles the Intracoastal Waterway. The city's commissioners put their request in writing in October, after the FWC unveiled its final proposal at a public hearing Sept. 25 in Treasure Island.

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» FWC's Diane Hirth: “Part of the reason for public comment is to give people the opportunity to identify areas they believe should be considered."


Besides Blind Pass, concerns for manatees in St. Pete Beach picked up after the 65-foot-high Pinellas Bayway Bridge opened in October, replacing a 21-foot drawbridge. The taller span allows smaller boats to cross near the shoals of the Intracoastal, where manatees frequently gather in the seagrass, observers say, including the mayor.

"You can often see [boaters] get stuck completely to a standstill, and then they're having to back up, and every time they're having to shift their propeller, it is really decimating the seagrass beds," St. Pete Beach Mayor Maria Lowe told Bay News 9 in November. "It's really a sad circumstance because they are going through the area quite often."

An FWC boating safety zone exists around the bridge. Local stakeholders, Hirth said, can make a case for a manatee zone, including the waters feeding into McPherson Bayou, when a new round of public comment and hearings begins.

"Part of the reason for public comment is to give people the opportunity to identify areas they believe should be considered," Hirth said in an email.

The FWC's multiyear study of a 46-mile stretch of inshore waterways included aerial surveys in 2008 to 2010 to identify potentially dangerous intersections between manatees and boaters. The data for boating was collected in 2008 to 2009, according to a report in November 2013 by the FWC's Imperiled Species Management Section. Construction on the Pinellas Bayway Bridge began in February 2012.

Public input by writing or email will begin when the FWC publishes the proposed rule in the Florida Administrative Register and in the FWC and Pinellas County websites. Hirth said more than one public hearing was expected, possibly starting in late January.

The FWC is recommending a year-round manatee protection zone northwest of the Pinellas Bayway Bridge in Boca Ciega Isle, and a warm-season zone slightly southeast in Isla Del Sol.

"A zone could be considered ... based on public comments," Hirth said. "The decision on the final content of the rule will be made by the FWC commissioners in 2015. If a zone is added in this area, it would be addressed as a Notice of Change." 

Pinellas ranks sixth in the state for most boat-related manatee deaths since 2006, according to the FWC. The average number of lethal strikes in western Pinellas from 2000-12 was six times greater than the average in the 1990s.

A Local Rule Review Committee of advocates for manatees and boaters partnered in the FWC's review, which also weighed opinions of biologists for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ongoing is a federal study of the endangered status of the manatee.

For now, the western Pinellas plan calls for a mixture of year-round, warm-season and cold-season no-wake and minimum-wake zones in 20 of 21 proposed zones shared by manatees and boaters.

“Through our analysis of manatee and boating data, we believe the proposed zones will provide improved protection for manatees while causing a relatively small effect on boaters’ travel time,” said Carol Knox, head of the Imperiled Species Management Section.


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