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A battle to protect seagrass

Published Oct. 10, 2005

It wasn't so bad when it was just the coves around Weedon Island.

Two years ago when officials closed that area to motor boats, commercial anglers grumbled. But they eventually agreed to go along with the action, designed to pro-tect underwater seagrasses from damage by boat propellers.

Now, officials are proposing that three more areas in Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico be closed to motor boats in a stepped-up effort to protect the grasses that are essential for fish to grow and survive.

Commercial anglers say it's too much.

They say commercial anglers aren't the ones causing the damage. And they fear that the newclosures might set a precedent that could run them out of business.

The seagrass beds proposed for closure or at least partial closure are some of the best fishing grounds around _ Cockroach Bay in southern Hillsborough County near Ruskin, Mullet Key and Tarpon Key in southern Pinellas County near Fort De Soto, and the waters around Honeymoon Island State Park off the Pinellas coast near Dunedin.

"It isn't so much that one place is a big loss. It's the cumulative total that's important and the precedent they set," said Floyd DeForest, director of the Hillsborough chapter of Organized Fishermen of Florida. "They run us off one grass bed, then they'll run us off more and more."

Keep certain boats out

They are separate proposals by different agencies.

But they all represent the latest target in the battle to protect seagrass beds.

With other problems such as pollution and indiscriminate dredging and filling being brought under control, scientists are targeting the destruction caused by sharp propellers in shallow water.

Careless boaters who run aground rev their engines to power their way out of the predicament. It works. But it rips long swaths of seagrass out by the roots. And seagrass can take as long as 10 years to grow back.

As much as 80 percent of Tampa Bay's seagrass beds have disappeared since 1950. With so little of the critical habitat left, the damage caused by propellers is seen as a major problem.

Scientists say closing areas to boats with internal combustion engines is, in some cases, the only way to give the grass beds a chance to recover.

It's beginning to work around Weedon Island. Seagrass beds there have started to recover in the year and a half since much of the area under state control was closed to internal combustion engines. Only a few new propeller scars have appeared in that time, according to Keith Thompson, manager of the state preserve.

"I have seen a great improvement in the habitat," Thompson told the Pinellas County Commission in early February. "The food chain's real simple; when the grasses are gone, so are the fish. I've seen fishing catch increase dramatically over the past year."

Not all boats are at fault

Commercial anglers know that. They fish the grass beds because that's where the fish are, and they recognize as much as anybody the importance of the grass beds to the fishery that gives them a living.

What bothers commercial anglers about the proposals to close more areas is that they say they're not at fault.

Mullet boats are made to run in shallow water and the engines mounted on the front of the boats raise up rather than drop down as the boat begins to move. And a study by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) showed that the nets dragged by bait shrimpers don't damage the grass beds.

"I'm not going to say there's never been a mullet boat that's torn up a grass bed, but the great majority of us know where we're going," said Al Darlington, director of the St. Petersburg chapter of Organized Fishermen of Florida.

Darlington and other commercial anglers say most of the damage is caused by recreational boaters who may not know the importance of the grass beds, who may not know where they are, or who may not care.

The proposed closures chafe especially hard with commercial anglers because as long ago as 1983, Organized Fishermen of Florida supported a $300-per-year license fee of which 80 percent is used for seagrass restoration.

"We started worrying about seagrass before it became fashionable," DeForest said. "We went out of our way to save seagrass and now they're trying to kick us out."

Plan to educate boaters

The problem is that no one knows for sure who is causing most of the damage.

Commercial anglers point to recreational boaters and recreational boaters point to commercial anglers. Environmentalists, for the most part, have stayed out of the argument.

"The bottom line is we have to protect the resource," said Robin Lewis, an environmental consultant who is proposing the closure of a large part of Cockroach Bay. "We don't have any smoking guns, but somebody is causing the damage.

"We're not picking on commercial fishermen," he said. "These areas are proposed for closure to all boaters."

Still, the concerns raised by the commercial anglers are very real. For instance, an area between Tarpon Key off Pinellas County's southern tip and Tierra Verde supplies about 90 percent of the bait shrimp in Tampa Bay, according to assistant county administrator Jake Stowers. The county's original proposal called for much of that area to be closed.

But because of the concerns raised by the commercial anglers, county officials have developed a new proposal that not only will help protect the grass beds but will act as an experiment.

Stowers still is proposing that some areas around Mullet Key and Tarpon Key be closed completely to internal combustion engines. But in other areas, signs will be put up marking the seagrass beds and warning boaters they may run aground.

Part of the problem, officials figure, is that people just don't know where the grass beds are. And when the run aground, they don't know how to get off the beds without doing damage.

Before Weedon Island was closed completely to motor boats, manager Thompson said he was able to cut propeller scarring in half just by erecting signs and educating boaters to the problem.

The compromise sits well with the commercial anglers.

"Let's educate first. Let's not go drastic first," Darlington said. "Let's put up signs and tell them where the seagrasses are."

The Pinellas County Commission is scheduled to vote on the latest proposal at a meeting Tuesday night. On Feb. 26, the Hillsborough Environmental Management Commission is scheduled to consider the proposal to close portions of Cockroach Bay. No date has been set to consider the proposal to close waters near Honeymoon Island.

Lewis, who has been a major supporter of seagrass protection, said this week he believes the compromise with the commercial anglers has merit. But he added that he's tired of hearing the squabbling over who is causing the problem.

Lewis said he won't propose that any more areas be closed during the next two years. But at the same time, he said he will challenge commercial and recreational anglers to help solve the problem of propeller scarring.

"If, two years from today," he said, "the recreational fishermen are still saying it's not my damage and the commercial fishermen are saying it's not my damage, then I'll move to close all the seagrass beds in Tampa Bay to boats."