Pinellas manatee protection zone meeting gets heated pushback from boaters

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Some Pinellas County boaters are upset about proposed manatee protection zones. Thursday night’s public information session at Treasure Island City Hall was supposed to put the finishing touches on plans which have been in the works for more than a year. But, many in the crowd were irritated about fuzzy statistics and lack of transparency.

Twenty-one slow-speed zones are being proposed to help cut down on manatee deaths. But most of the people in the audience spoke out saying the restrictions go too far. This boater said the number of manatees killed isn’t a problem that should interfere with their recreation.

But a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says federal statutes forbid any number of manatee deaths from collisions with boats. Scott Calleson says speed zones can help reduce the escalating number of manatees hit by boats.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of manatee deaths needs to come down or else they will pull the plug on NEW boat facilities. In order to do that, last year the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC, put together a group of local citizens to review and make suggestions for a Manatee Management Plan beginning in 2015. This group, called the Local Rule Review Committee, is made up of environmentalists and boaters; both commercial and recreational. Based on aerial surveys of manatee populations by the FWC, the committee recommended the Twenty-one slow-speed zones in Pinellas. Elizabeth Fleming from Defenders of Wildlife is one of the environmentalists on the local review committee.

Some of the boaters at the meeting were also upset they were not properly informed about the Local Rule Review meetings. Despite that, Oliver Kugler, a boater and resident of Indian Rocks for over 40 years, is generally happy with the manatee speed zone proposal.

Marine consultant Terri Skapik was one of the representatives of boating interests on the Local Rule Review Committee. She brought a 10 inch think binder full of reports, graphs and charts the committee used to make recommendations. These materials plus the minutes to all the meetings have been online since the beginning. She is convinced opponents will be less upset once they review the material.

The next workshop before finalization of the statewide plan will take place in November in Key Largo.