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Fort Myers Beach Council approves manatee protection zone

Florida Fish and WIldlife Conservation will need to approve new boat speed limits

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Sep 30, 2020

A new ordinance will create a manatee protection zone in Fort Myers Beach

The Town of Fort Myers Beach Council has approved a new all-year manatee protection zone setting a minimum wake limit for boats from Matanzas Pass through Estero Bay and Buccaneer Lagoon on the south end of Estero Island following a second reading of the proposed ordinance. The speed changes still need approval from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

The new speed zone addresses the rolling back by Lee County Government and the FWC last year of a no-wake, manatee zone in Estero Bay. The county took a year-round, no-wake zone and turned it into 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 formed a petition drive to persuade the town council to reverse the changes on the grounds that it put threatened manatees at risk, drove away dolphins, and posed a danger to the boat docks there.

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.

The FWC will still need to approve the changes. The town is providing the FWC with further data it needs to assess the proposed changes.

Lee County led the state in 2018 and 2019 in manatee deaths

Palms of Bay Beach Condominium Association President Sue Morris, on behalf of the committee “No Wake in the Back Bay” thanked the town staff and council for working to protect the threatened manatees.

John Russo, who belongs to the Waterside Dock Association and who pushed for the town’s action, issued a statement thanking the town council for it’s vote. “We are very pleased with the final passing of the speed limit changes and are very thankful to the board for all their hard work and due diligence to get this passed.”

Russo thanked Morris and those who “devoted many hours of personal time and research to right this wrong and for that I speak for the entire Waterside/ Bay Beach community that all are very grateful to them. We now still have one more hurdle to get over with the approval of the FWC.”

Russo said he hopes the FWC will approve the changes before the start of the winter season.

Town of Fort Myers Beach Manager Roger Hernstadt said the new ordinance was an example of a “civics lesson of how government should work.” Hernstadt said the efforts of the community to bring the issue to the attention of the town council and staff was a “model case of how our town government can work effectively.”

Maelee, the manatee rescued from Fort Myers Beach who died from a boat strike

Councilmember Bill Veach credited Morris and their community group for doing the research on what it took to change the boating speed and working with town staff and the FWC on the changes.

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 from the northernmost tip of Estero Island, and west and southwest of a line 1,000 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 to 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 453 have been recorded already this year, many of which are due to boat strikes. Earlier this month, a manatee floating above the water after being struck by a boat was rescued in Matanzas Pass and died a week later at ZooTampa from its injuries.

This manatee, named MaeLee, was rescued from Matanzas Pass this month after a boat strike but died a week later at ZooTampa from her injuries.

Lee County led the state in 2018 and 2019 in the number of manatee deaths. This year, there have been 57 documented manatee fatalities in Lee County.

John Russo