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Lee County commissioners plan to add more year-round slow-speed zones for manatees

 A boat sits docked near FGCU’s Vester Station; a marine science facility located on Bonita Beach Road.
Tyler Watkins
A boat sits docked near FGCU’s Vester Station; a marine science facility located on Bonita Beach Road.

Manatee mortality rates for 2021 are projected to reach unprecedented levels in Lee County.

Unparalleled threats to the manatee population have led Lee County officials to act to save Florida’s iconic species.

After years of ranking near the top spot for manatee deaths in Florida counties, Lee County is trying to change this trend. Lee County commissioners are pushing to add more year-round manatee slow speed zones in the area.

County officials say the ordinance would apply to Gasparilla Island (Boca Grande Bayou), Captiva Island (bayside including Roosevelt Channel), and North Captiva (Safety Harbor).

Tim Martell, the owner of Seaway Outfitters and a local water guide, has been interacting with manatees for approximately 20 years.

“For the time being, I think any plan that helps manatees is a good thing,” Martell said. “Manatees are facing unprecedented threats and mortality rates are dramatically spiking.”

Martell, who gives kayak tours and rents boats to the public, accepts the sacrifices his boat businesses will have to go through for a better future for manatees.

“In this case, I’m not a tree hugger that’s blowing hot air. I have a stake in this too. Not many people care to rent a boat if you’re only allowed to putt around all over the place,” Martell said. “Even though I know it doesn’t benefit me, I still support speed zones and understand how important these majestic animals are to all Floridians.”

Martell also emphasized his belief in making sacrifices to protect the things that you love.

Another boater shares the same sentiment for conserving manatees. Taylor Rath is a Pompano Beach resident who often hits the waters of Lee County.

“I don’t have a problem with it. If there’s a lot of manatees in an area all year round then there should be slow zones all year round,” Rath said. “People going fast is what’s causing the problem. If they go slower, they can see them and go even slower or stop.”

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, over 1,000 manatees have died in Florida this year. The FWC recorded 106 deaths in Lee County and seven of those were boating collisions.

As Lee County is projected to reach another record manatee mortality rate, some contributing factors that got the area to this point can be seen.

Kimberleigh Dinkins works with the Save the Manatee Club. Dinkins believes the combination of numerous tourists and a large manatee population is a contributing factor to Lee County’s high manatee mortality rate.

“I think it has a lot to do with Lee County having manatees in the area and it has a lot of visitors and boaters,” Dinkins said. “You have a lot of manatee and human interaction, so of course that’s going to become a recipe for those types of accidents.”

There are an estimated 44,000 registered boats in Lee County according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The county is ranked third for boating registration in the state.

Dinkins and the Save the Manatee Club are also concerned with the high statistical rate of manatee deaths related to boating accidents. Approximately 40% of annual manatee deaths are related to boat strikes, according to Dinkins.

“There are two pieces, there’s the government enforcement side and then there’s educating yourself about what’s in the water at your end,” Dinkins said.

Along with collisions with vessels, manatees face other dangers such as poor water quality and loss of habitat.

“Saving manatee will, unfortunately, require more work than implementing speed zones,” Martell said. “In recent years, massive algae blooms in the Indian River Lagoon and elsewhere in Florida has led to massive loss of manatee habitat. Tens of thousands of acres of seagrass has been wiped out by thick algae blooms that started the aquatic vegetation of sunlight (photosynthesis doesn’t occur).”

The loss of manatees could lead to detriments to the ecosystem and the economy as well. Martell and Dinkins shared details on the important roles manatees fill in our society.

“People love manatees. Everyone always wants to see them, and every year millions of people come to the state of Florida to have a chance to see a manatee in the wild,” Martell said. “They bring massive economic benefit to the state in terms of flights, hotels, meals, and guided tours.”

Martell said he’s had families fly in from other countries specifically to book tours with him to see manatees up close.

Manatees are known to feed on seagrass. Their consumption of it prevents the overgrowth of vegetation, and manatees also serve as fertilization sources of submerged aquatic vegetation. Dinkins shared more about the environmental impact of manatees.

“They are a sentinel species (animals that can detect risks to humans). If manatees are in trouble, then other animals are in trouble as well,” Dinkins said. “We need to protect them because we have a personal responsibility to respect our marine mammals because we are recreating in their space.”

Manatee protection zones in Southwest Florida are currently enforced from April 1- November 15. During a November meeting, Lee County commissioners announced the ordinance is in the planning stages and boaters should not see any changes anytime soon.

Copyright 2021 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Tyler Watkins