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New manatee speed zone signs up

New signs establish year-round, slow speed, no-wake zone from Matanzas Pass to Estero Bay and Buccaneer Lagoon

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Mar 16, 2021

This 3-feet by 4-feet sign replaces a sign installed last year by Lee County and institutes a year-round slow speed, minimum wake zone from Matanzas Pass to Estero Bay and Buccaneer Lagoon in Fort Myers Beach as part of a manatee protection zone. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

More than a year after a group of residents at Bay Beach Lane voiced their objections to a move by Lee County to change the signs in a manatee protection zone to allow for increased boat speeds, signs went up Wednesday to officially establish a “slow speed, minimum wake” zone that is year-round.

The county installed the signs after the Town of Fort Myers Beach Council approved a new manatee protection zone last year which goes from Matanzas Pass through Estero Bay, Coon Key and Buccaneer Lagoon on the south end of Estero Island. The zone was approved by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) last fall but the signs were not approved until recently, following the town and county working together to submit an application for the signs.

Standing outside overlooking Coon Key over the weekend, Bay Beach Lane resident and avid boater John Russo expressed thanks for the combined efforts of the government agencies. Russo was one of the leading voices expressing opposition to Lee County’s change of the no-wake zone to a 25 mph zone during the height of the tourism season.

“This is the way it’s supposed to be,” Russo said. “There is peace and tranquility here. For the last year and a half we had nothing but havoc. It was absolutely horrible. The noise, the erosion, you couldn’t even board your boat.” The manatees and dolphins disappeared, he said.

Councilmember Bill Veach thanked the committee “No Wake in the Back Bay” led by Sue Morris in “getting the ball running” and working through the maze of bureaucracy it took to get the change done.

John Russo, who helped lead the fight to change the signs in Coon Key and Estero Bay in the manatee protection zone that Lee County had changed, looks out on the water as boats were going slower over the weekend on Fort Myers Beach. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

The committee gathered more than 600 signatures seeking to get a sympathetic town council to reduce the boating speed on the bay. Town Manager Roger Hernstadt and environmental project manager Chadd Chustz worked with the FWC on drafting language for the town to create the manatee protection zone, which was ultimately passed by town council and approved by the FWC last year. An additional step of getting the signs approved took several more months after the FWC approval and required assistance from Lee County.

Lee County spokesperson Betsy Clayton explained that the county’s role was essentially one of guidance, once the town’s local ordinance and manatee protection zone were approved by the FWC.

Morris said the situation “won’t be perfect for a while” but the difference on the bay was stark since the signs went up. Morris said boats were flying like the “Daytona Speedway” before the sign replacements and now she estimated 75% to 80% were going slow.

In just a few days since the signs went up, dolphins have returned to the area after being absent for the past year, she said. “All of the sudden we started seeing dolphins,” Morris said.

On a visit to Bay Beach Lane overlooking Coon Key and Estero Bay over the weekend, the boat traffic was high but most were abiding by the slow speed, minimum wake requirements.

Boaters were active over the weekend in the manatee protection zone at Coon Key but largely abiding by the slow speed, minimum wake signs. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg

Russo and Morris said the signs plus the presence of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, Coast Guard and FWC in the waters to remind boaters of the change in speeds, helped change the dynamic.

Morris said the situation on the bay before the change was “actually really scary.”

Morris and Russo did have one issue with the new signs. Both questioned why the county placed one of the main signs in Coon Key near Bay Beach Lane facing toward the buildings instead of both of the boat paths. A request to Lee County Government spokesperson Betsy Clayton to speak with those involved with the placing of the signs was not responded to.

Russo also felt the signs were small. According to the FWC, the signs have to be a minimum of 3′ by 3′ but there is no maximum size. The signs approved by the FWC based on the town and county’s request are 3-feet by 4-feet.

Larry Wood, president of Waterside Master Association who lives at Dolphin Pointe off Bay Beach Lane, said the new manatee speed zone signs will lower speeds and help save the manatees and “also some of the other animals like humans.”

Wood said there were some near tragedies at the association’s floating docks recently where people were nearly killed by the wakes created on the bay by speeding boats.

Russo said the Waterside Dock Association had extensive repair work to do on the docks due to the wakes over the past year.

According to Clayton, the county had the signs changed by the FWC in 2019 after it was found that the “idle speed, no wake signs” didn’t comply with state rules, prompting a countywide review and corrections as necessary to comply with the statutory requirements for local vessel restrictions.

Town of Fort Myers Beach Manager Roger Hernstadt said Monday that boaters should be mindful of the speed limit and sea life.

“We encourage everyone to monitor their vessel speed and be watchful of manatees and other sea life,” Hernstadt said. “Their wakes travel up and down the canals and affect the docks and boats. Slow down and enjoy the view.”

Editor Nathan Mayberg can be reached at Nmayberg@breezenewspapers.com