According to County Administrator Craig Coffey, the County Commission and Florida Fish and Wildlife staff came to a few agreements, Tuesday, May 17, at a workshop regarding the long-debated manatee speed zone issue.
“There’s a lot at stake,” Coffey said of the FWC’s proposal to increase speed zones along Flagler County’s Intracoastal Waterway from .5 miles to 5.6 miles, citing potential detriments to the local boating culture and economy.
At the workshop, a northern ordinance zone was agreed upon, as well as the time of year for regulation. The southern and middle ordinance zones were not finalized.
The county has 18.5 total miles of Intracoastal, and the state’s proposals do not include speed/protection areas already in place and regulated locally — like slow speed/no wake canals, some of which are believed to be manatee birthing areas and represent, according to county staff, “significant manatee protections already in place.”
“We have limited amount of manatee activity in our county, and we have limited incidents,” Coffey said.
To be exact, Flagler has recorded nine manatee deaths in the last 11 years. That’s compared to Lee County recording 12 last year alone; Volusia recording five; and Brevard recording about 12 per year.
Plus, Coffey noted, the current speed-zone noncompliance rate is huge — 40% to 50%, and even higher with smaller vessels, like jet skis. Also, most manatees only pass through Flagler County, which isn't rich in food or habitat. When analysts chart activity using methodology based on warm waters containing feeding areas (both of which don’t apply to Flagler) the test results can be “random," Coffey said.
An increase in speed zones could even make situations more dangerous for manatees, he said, because of water traffic congestion.
“It’s just regulation for the sake of regulation,” he said. “We welcome the preservation of manatees when it’s meaningful.”
Tim Telfer, county environmental planner agrees.
“Speed zones are only one leg of the stool,” he said, suggesting increasing local education and working with law enforcement first. “Reducing manatee mortalities is a noble goal … (but) speed zones might not be the best method.”
FWC staff will return to its board of the directors for consideration of Flagler County’s recommendations, then reconvene June 8, in Saint Augustine, to approve or reject the plan to minimize the length of the proposed zones.
When and if the plan is ultimately approved, rules will be determined.
“We’re hoping that people will show up to that meeting and express their viewpoints, both for and against,” Coffey said. “We’re hoping that we can continue to work through with (the FWC) to some kind of compromise approach … so we aren’t fighting one another, we’re working together."