State environmental officials are investigating whether the Port Richey SunCruz casino boat chewed up sensitive sea grass beds off the coast of Pasco and Hernando counties, leaving behind deep scars in the ocean bottom that are 12 feet wide and up to 3,000 feet long.
"We are looking into it," state Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Pam Vazquez said Friday.
State officials said they have an aerial photo showing what appears to be the casino boat in the sea grass beds.
However, a spokeswoman for the casino ship line said DEP had not contacted the owners or notified the company of any problems. Beth Fifer, spokeswoman for Port Richey Casino Inc., said Friday that any sea grass damage must have been done by some other vessel.
The sea grass beds serve as a vital nursery and feeding ground for a variety of species, including manatees, lobster and redfish. The plants — manatee grass and turtle grass, among other species — also filter pollution, keeping the water clean.
Biologists who have been mapping 600,000 acres of sea grass beds off the coast discovered the damage three months ago while studying aerial photos that had been shot last year, said Keith Kolasa, senior environmental scientist for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
The photos showed big gouges cut through sea grass beds 4 nautical miles off the Pasco coast, and more scars in the sea grass about 8 nautical miles from the Pasco-Hernando county line, Kolasa said. The water is about 8 to 12 feet deep there, depending on the tide, he said.
The biologists were surprised by the size of the gouges. More than 170,000 acres of sea grass beds around Florida's coast have been chewed up by boat propellers, but those scars are usually no more than 2 feet wide.
The biologists figured the big scars were decades-old ones left by shrimp boats. But when they went out in a boat Dec. 6 to survey the damage up close, Kolasa said, they could see they were made recently. And they spotted a new dimension to the damage.
"These are scars with a trench in the middle as if they were dug out by the prop," he said.
Kolasa said only one boat that size currently operates in that area of the Gulf of Mexico: the SunCruz casino ship that caters to gamblers who ride shuttles from Port Richey to play the slot machines, bet on roulette or wager on blackjack.
The casino boat is supposed to stay 9 nautical miles offshore, in international waters, to avoid violating the state's ban on casino gambling. But the two areas where the sea grass damage was done are considered to be state waters, Kolasa said.
Swiftmud officials notified DEP and the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission of their discovery. Since it involved navigational issues, they also notified the U.S. Coast Guard.
About noon Dec. 27, Swiftmud biologists flew over the same area off the Hernando-Pasco line to take new pictures of the sea grass damage. "In the imagery," Kolasa said, "were pictures of a large boat . . . along with sea grass debris."
Vazquez of DEP's Tampa office could offer no details of the ongoing investigation, and Coast Guard officials did not return calls seeking comment. Vazquez said she also could not discuss potential penalties at this point.
Sometimes causing such sea grass damage has led to stiff penalties. A 1998 case from Biscayne National Park resulted in fines and damages totaling $63,377.
In the early 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the DEP's predecessor agency sued a bridge contractor for using tugboats to chew up 27 acres of sea grass beds in a wildlife refuge in the Keys, leaving scars up to 5 feet wide and 3 feet deep.
In that case, a federal judge ordered the contractor to pay $200,000 to restore the sea grass beds as well as a $20,000 fine. The sea grasses in the refuge took more than a decade to recover from the damage, Curtis Kruer, who worked on the case for the corps, said Friday.
Restoring sea grass in shallow water could cost the state's taxpayers an estimated $250,000 per acre, Kolasa said. Restoring it in deeper water such as this is likely to cost more, he said.
State officials have been reluctant to charge the average boater caught digging out the sea grass beds with his or her boat motor, said Ross Burnaman, a former state wildlife commission attorney who has studied the issue. As a result, even if the state can prove SunCruz caused the damage, the company may face no penalty at all, he said.
"Nobody for years has wanted to do anything about this," he said.
But that sends a bad message, Burnaman contended, since the sea grass beds are state-owned land, just like a state park. Failing to take action tells people that "you can destroy important habitat on state-owned land with impunity," he said.
Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.