RUSKIN — It is still and quiet here. The water ripples as mullet pop out of the water. Birds nest in clumps of mangroves. In the distance, a seagull squawks, and a man with a fishing pole sings a "yo-ho" pirate tune as his boat rumbles toward the gulf. This is Little Cockroach Bay, a hidden treasure of south Hillsborough. It is still and quiet here, but trouble lurks beneath the surface. Serious sea grass scarring has turned this peaceful piece of Old Florida into a battleground.
Thousands of scars from motorboat propellers have damaged the sea grass, which serves as a habitat and food source for marine life.
And for more than a year, boaters and local environmental regulators have debated proposed restrictions, including one plan that would require boaters to turn off gas-powered engines and use electric trolling motors, push poles or paddles between the Cockroach Bay boat ramp and the mouth of the Little Manatee River.
Others have proposed creating a high-speed lane for motorboat traffic.
And one crabber has suggested creating a protective sanctuary over the entire bay.
The county's Environmental Protection Commission could decide later this year.
All sides agree on one thing: The area is unique, and worth fighting to preserve.
"It's a really beautiful area," said Gus Muench, who caught crab in Cockroach Bay for decades. "When you're there, you feel like it's what the Indians felt like."
Miles from the quiet waterways he's fished for years, Muench's voice boomed through the loudspeakers.
"I've fished Tampa Bay all my life, and I'll probably fish it until I fall out of the boat and drown," the 72-year-old crabber and charter captain told county commissioners at a meeting this summer.
In 2006, he stopped crabbing in Cockroach Bay because he saw what boat propellers were doing to the sea grass. In 2007, he became a vocal advocate for expanding proposed boating restrictions and banning motorboats in Cockroach Bay.
"I see no other alternative," he told commissioners. "We tried education. Education doesn't work."
He now catches crab on the Little Manatee River and near E.G. Simmons Park in Ruskin.
Mike Raff, 67
Sun City Center
With his station wagon parked beside the Cockroach Bay boat ramp, Mike Raff prepares to launch a kayak on a rainy morning.
"This area is paradise for paddling," said Raff, a retired accounting instructor from Maryland who leads a Sun City Center kayak group. "As you wander into the mangroves, you have a lot of solitude. It's a very relaxing experience."
But Raff also has a motor boat, and says he opposes additional restrictions.
"What they need here is a little more law enforcement activity," he said. "I think most of the power boaters are responsible. I don't think you need to punish all boaters."
Justin Ascherman, 22
As a firefighter for Dunedin Fire Rescue, Justin Ascherman sees prop scars in a different light.
"I personally think it helps the sea grass," he said, comparing scarring to controlled burns in a forest.
A Riverview native, Ascherman, 22, started fishing in Cockroach Bay with his dad.
"It's relaxing. It's one of my places to get away from the hustle-bustle of work and family," he said. "You're basically in the middle of nowhere. That's what makes the fishing so good. They don't have houses right on the water."
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Aerial photographs of Little Cockroach Bay show thousands of white, zigzag streaks cutting through the sea grass — propeller scars caused by motorboats.
To cut down on the damage, a task force formed by the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission has proposed boundaries for a "pole and troll" area in Little Cockroach Bay, reaching about a mile from shore at the widest point. Only electric trolling motors, push poles or paddles would be permitted between the Cockroach Bay boat ramp and the mouth of the Little Manatee River.
Some people, like Muench, want the restrictions to be more stringent. But some commercial fishermen dislike the task force's proposal because it will slow down their trips to fishing spots.
"That's the rub of the argument," said Thomas Ash, general manager of environmental restoration for the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission. "Pole and troll does not happen quickly."
To help boaters make quicker trips, there are several proposed access corridors, where gas-powered motors and higher speeds would be allowed, Ash said.
Before the proposal goes to the County Commission, the Environmental Protection Commission plans to work out the details with the several regulatory agencies that control the bay, including the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Tampa Port Authority.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.