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Fort Myers Beach submits application for manatee speed zone signs

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Jan 20, 2021

Dolphins swim together in Estero Bay / File photo by Nathan Mayberg

When the Town of Fort Myers Beach Council voted in September to approve a new all-year manatee protection boat speed zone, it was understood that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) would have to approve it.

The FWC did approve the ordinance but the signage could be months away.

More than three months after the town council first approved the ordinance, a uniform waterway market permit for the signs is all that remains.

Fort Myers Beach Environmental Coordinator Chadd Chustz stated in an email on Tuesday that “the FWC is in receipt of the Town’s Uniform Waterway Marker Permit application for 6 signs in the Bay Beach/Coon Key area. The FWC Boating and Waterways Section operates on a 90 day processing cycle.”

Chustz, who worked on the application, said one week earlier on Jan. 13 in an email that “I am working on the GIS plan view drawing required by the application. I will review the application with Lee County prior to submitting to FWC.”

Manatees in Estero Bay / File photo by Nathan Mayberg

According to FWC spokesperson Adam Brown, the FWC had been waiting for the uniform waterway market permit application from the town since at least November.

Melody Kilborn, FWC’s Southwest Region Public Information Director said the agency received the application on Friday and is reviewing it.

The town’s ordinance is meant to reverse a change made by Lee County and the FWC last year of no-wake, manatee zone signs in Estero Bay. The county removed the year-round, no-wake signs 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 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 Town of Fort Myers Beach ordinance establishing a new manatee speed zone has been approved by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission though the signs could still be months away. / File photo by Nathan Mayberg

In late 2019, Lee County removed markers associated with several local boating safety zones including the year-round slow speed zones that were removed in Fort Myers Beach.

The Town of Fort Myers Beach has worked with the FWC since March to revert the signage back.

Palms of Bay Beach Condominium Association President Sue Morris, on behalf of the committee “No Wake in the Back Bay” said she believes the ordinance is in effect minus the signs, making it currently unenforceable.

Morris said speed continues to be a problem in Estero Bay due to the lack of updated signage. “It’s the same as last year because nobody knows it changed.” The new ordinance, she noted, was approved by the town “when nobody was here.”

Morris is hopeful the new signs will be approved before the current season ends in April for the manatee protection zone and switches to a 25 mph zone. “It’s not happening quick enough for any of us,” she said.

The year-long effort to reverse the change to the manatee speed zone signs in Fort Myers Beach will still need some time as a request for the sign permit was put in Friday to the FWC. / File photo by Nathan Mayberg

“We’re fortunate that it’s cold. There is not as many people here because of covid,” Morris said. “It is now just about making everybody aware there is a law.”

John Russo, who belongs to the Waterside Dock Association and who pushed for the town’s action, had hoped the signs would be ready for the winter season.

Russo said speeding is still an issue with boats. “It’s terrible,” he said. “It’s like the Indy 500 out there.”

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.

In 2020, Lee County was second in the state with 68 manatee mortalities. That was a sharp decline from 2019, when there were 144 manatee deaths recorded in Lee County waters. Lee County led the state in manatee deaths in 2018 and 2019.

Of the 68 manatee deaths in Lee County in 2020, half were determined to be natural, caused by cold or perinatal, with the other half either by boat strike, human interactions or undetermined.

The last recorded manatee death on Fort Myers Beach was on Dec. 10 in Big Carlos Pass, which was ruled to be perinatal in nature.