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Turanchik rethinks boat ban

County Commissioner Ed Turanchik has shifted his position on powerboats in Cockroach Bay after meeting with about 100 angry South Hillsborough constituents, including some who fish for a living.

The residents said that dredging and water pollution are causing most of the damage to the dense, shallow-water plants. They produced a petition signed by more than 1,000 people opposed to a ban.

Turanchik, who last month suggested an emergency ban on powerboats to help save the fragile sea grass in the bay, said he now wants to spend more time discussing the matter with boaters.

"It is quite apparent that in some places there is a tremendous amount of damage to sea grasses by boats," Turanchik said Thursday night. "(But) I don't think at this point that closure is the best solution."

Turanchik and environmental consultant Robin Lewis met with south county residents at East Bay High School. Lewis, seeking to protect the sea grass from further damage, planned to propose a two-year emergency ban in parts of the bay by the county Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) at its meeting Wednesday.

"If we do not do anything in 90 to 120 days, we're going to lose a very substantial area of sea grass," Lewis said. Under his plan, boaters could still enter the restricted area, but with electric motors or paddles _ which don't do much damage to the grass.

On Friday, Lewis said he still plans to ask for an emergency ban. But he said he has changed the boundaries of his plan so that boaters can have access to the bay's more popular fishing areas.

Turanchik and Lewis said they hope to work with the residents, not against them.

"A commercial fisherman pays a lot of money for a propeller. Do you think he's going to run it through sand?" Ruskin resident Robert Graves said. "I believe in saving the marine life. You just have to try something reasonable."

Sea grass is essential to the marine ecosystem. Most fish spend some part of their life in the beds, which act as a nurturing ground for sea animals. The beds also help keep the water clean.

But the shallow waters that harbor these grassy beds also are popular for commercial fishermen who haul mullet and other large fish from Cockroach Bay south of Ruskin, one of the most popular fishing areas in the state.

Turanchik, who is studying the issue for the EPC, asked the residents for alternatives.

Some people at the meeting suggested marking the portion of the channel where boats would be allowed to travel without harming the sea grass beds. Others suggested displaying signs to warn boaters where the delicate beds are. Many said a powerboat ban would be a nightmare to enforce.

Turanchik said he will recommend at next week's EPC meeting that the county hire a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy to patrol the bay, and that the county educate the public on the importance of preserving the endangered grass.

He plans to keep meeting with the residents, and does not expect any final EPC action Wednesday.