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Fort Myers Beach Council moves forward on new manatee protection speed zone

Ordinance would establish slow speed, minimum wake zone throughout Fort Myers Beach waters

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Sep 9, 2020

The Town of Fort Myers Beach Council is moving toward establishing a new manatee protection boat speed zone from Matanzas Pass through Estero Bay and Buccaneer Lagoon on the south end of Estero Island, as part of a new ordinance up for a public hearing Sept. 21.

The new boat speed limit still would need to be approved by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) once the town council approves it.

The council, which has given the ordinance a first reading, was called upon to act by a group of citizens on Bay Beach Lane who objected to actions taken last year by Lee County Government and the FWC to roll back a no-wake, manatee zone in Estero Bay.

The county took a year-round, no-wake zone and made it a 25 mph zone from Nov. 15 to April and a minimum wake zone the rest of the year.

The Waterside Dock Association and Palms of Bay Beach Condominium Association both objected to the measure on the grounds that it put threatened manatees at risk, drove away dolphins, and posed a danger to the boat docks there. A petition drive was formed to implore the town council to push back by drafting its own speed zone ordinance which it has the power to do if approved by the FWC.

According to Fort Myers Beach Environmental Project Manager Chadd Chustz, who drafted the ordinance in consultation with the FWC, the manatee zone in Estero Bay will be a year-round slow speed, minimum wake zone as part of a larger manatee protected zone in Fort Myers Beach.

Town of Fort Myers Beach Manager Roger Hernstadt said a new manatee protection zone is “looking promising.” He said town staff was furnishing the FWC with data it needs to approve the change.

In addition to the slow speed zone, sections of Matanzas Pass from Bowditch Point Park near fuel facilities and boat ramps to within 500 feet of the Fish Tale fuel facility, will be idle speed zones.

The slow speed zone would be instituted on all waters of Matanzas Pass and Estero Bay east of a line that bears 360° from the northernmost tip of Estero Island, and west and southwest of a line 1000 feet east and northeast of and parallel to the general contour of the east and northeastern shorelines of Estero Island, and west of a line beginning at a point on the eastern shoreline of Estero Island and bearing 36° to a point on the southern shoreline of Coon Key. Excluded are portions of the marked NorthSouth channel in northern Estero Bay from Green Channel Marker “37” to Green Channel Marker “57.” All waters of Buccaneer Lagoon at the Southern end of Estero Island would be included in the slow speed zone.

Manatees were long protected as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act, though they are currently listed as threatened. Dolphins and manatees are a federally protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The number of manatees in the waters in and around Florida have been estimated between 5,000 and 6,000 though the numbers of manatees killed each year has affected those estimates. Last year, there were 606 manatee deaths reported in Florida and more than 400 have been recorded already this year, many of which are due to boat strikes.

A manatee was rescued on Saturday from Matanzas Pass after being struck by a boat. The FWC transported the manatee to Zoo Tampa where it was listed in stable condition.

Lee County led the state in 2018 and 2019 in the number of manatee deaths. This year, there have been an estimated 53 manatee fatalities in Lee County, the second-most in the state. Chustz said the town is furnishing the FWC with data regarding the high amount of manatee deaths in the area as part of its application to institute the speed zone.

John Russo, who belongs to the Waterside Dock Association and who helped lead the fight to reverse the speed limit change, said “it would be a great success for all of the hard efforts” if the ordinance is approved the way it has been presented.