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Manatee zones limit boat speeds

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted Wednesday to create new manatee protection zones in waterways around Tampa Bay, effectively limiting boaters in those areas to speeds of 25 mph or less.

Beginning sometime next year _ as soon as regulators can post signs _ Hillsborough County will have four new or revised slower speed zones, including sites in Apollo Beach and Ruskin.

"We think it's something everybody can live with," said Jessica Koelsch, marine wildlife manager for the Ocean Conservancy. "Hopefully it's something the manatees can live with as well."

Koelsch was one of about 40 people who signed up to speak to the commission from various sides of the issue.

The zones come after two years of studies on how to protect manatees in and around Tampa Bay, where manatee protection varies from county to county. A record nine watercraft-related manatee deaths were recorded in Tampa Bay in 2003, while such deaths were at a five-year low elsewhere around the state.

Pinellas County has no state-enforced protection zones; Hillsborough and Manatee counties have one apiece.

Hillsborough's new restrictions:

+ Slow speeds on the Hillsborough side of Old Tampa Bay between Rocky Point and the Gandy Bridge.

+ Slow speeds just north of the Courtney Campbell Parkway during summer months.

+ An idle speed zone in the waters around the Tampa Electric Co. plant in Apollo Beach. Hillsborough County had already restricted speed in part of that area.

+ A state-enforced idle speed limit near Bahia Beach and a 25 mph limit on the Little Manatee River.

Boaters have long complained that such strict speed limits are unnecessary.

Jay Cridlin can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or cridlinsptimes.com.

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