The perennial Florida debate over which to protect — boaters or manatees? — is heating up again in Pinellas County, where state officials are proposing rules that would slow traffic along the Intracoastal Waterway.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is reconsidering speed limits because of a rise in manatee deaths. Officials have identified 21 areas along Pinellas waterways that might warrant half-mile "slow speed" zones.
The public will get its first look at the proposed changes tonight at a workshop at the Treasure Island City Hall. The recommendations aren't final, and the public will be allowed to comment on changes to the 46-mile highway for boaters that runs from the mouth of the Anclote River to Egmont Key.
"The environmentalists would love to make it all a no-wake zone," said Mark LaPrade, a longtime Pinellas boat dealer and marine activist who sat on a county committee that helped formulate the proposed changes. "But in the end, we made a lot of compromises that I think will be good for boaters and help protect the manatees."
LaPrade opposes the proposed slow speed zone south of the Corey Causeway because he doesn't see a need.
"It will slow down traffic for no good reason," he said.
State officials disagree. The number of manatees found dead in south county waters increased from three in the 1990s to 24 from 2000 to 2012.
One way to protect manatees is to look at boating traffic, said Scott Calleson, a fisheries and wildlife biologist with the wildlife commission. "This is a comprehensive look at the whole Intracoastal Waterway, but the only area the (restrictions) will have an impact on travel time is that area south of the Pasadena Bridge (Corey Causeway)."
John's Pass already has some restrictions in the west and southeast. The county committee unanimously supported the wildlife commission's preliminary proposal to add slow speed zones there. Additional restrictions are also proposed for the Anclote River.
Slower speeds include a "no wake" zone, in which a boater must travel at the minimum speed that allows the vessel to maintain its headway and steerage, and a "minimum wake" zone, where boaters must operate fully off plane and completely settled in the water.
One opponent is the Indian Rocks Beach Boat Club, which met last week and voted 48-2 to oppose the new regulations.
"Travel time is an important issue for many boaters," said Bob Griffin, the club's president. "This could have a major impact on businesses. Some people will stop going to restaurants on the Intracoastal if they can't get there by boat."
But Frank Chivas, who owns two waterfront restaurants — the Salt Rock Grill in Indian Shores and the Island Way Grill in Clearwater — said he supports the new manatee protection zones. "We have to protect and preserve the things that make Florida special."
Others, including local business owner Mark Hubbard, said the new regulations could affect boating safety.
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"If you start putting up slow speed and no-wake zones all over the Intracoastal, people are going to start running up the coast in the open gulf, and not every boater is ready for that," said Hubbard, whose family runs a fleet of fishing boats out of John's Pass. "That can be a real issue in rough weather and may lead to an increase in boating accidents."
Katie Tripp of the Maitland-based Save the Manatee Club also served on the county committee and thinks disruptions for boaters will be minimal.
"I don't think these new areas of protection are going to create any hardship for boaters," she said. "There are areas such as the Narrows (in Indian Rocks Beach) where common sense should tell you that boaters should slow down. I think overall, everybody made compromises."
Committee member Doug Speeler Sr., a consultant who owned one of the Tampa Bay area's top marine construction businesses, believes the proposed regulations are unnecessary.
"We should just maintain the status quo," he said. "There are already enough slow speeds and idle zones on the Intracoastal . . . just fall back and punt."