New Intracoastal manatee signage months away

By Nirvi Shah

New signs that warn boaters of speed limits and note the possible presence of manatees in the Intracoastal Waterway could be months away from being installed.

The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission has plans for several new signs throughout Palm Beach County’s portion of the waterway — including some in areas not currently marked — based on a 2006 study of intracoastal boat traffic. But FWC waterway unit planner Shaun Davis said a variety of problems are keeping the signs away for now.

“We’re trying as hard as we can to get it going,” Davis said. The $100,000 project needs permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard to proceed, and then the signs must be ordered.

The sign delay comes on the heels of a deadly year for manatees. In all of 2009, 429 manatees were killed by weather, boaters and other causes. But 2010’s severe cold weather alone killed 246 sea cows, for a total of 640 through the end of August, according to FWC records.

While many of the signs Fish & Wildlife plans to install will replace those already in place warning boaters of speed limits and manatees, others are intended to cover previously unmarked portions of the waterway, according to Paul Davis, an environmental manager at
Palm Beach County’s Environmental Resources Management Department.

For example, “one area is at Woolbright Road,” he said. “There’s not a zone there, but there will be. It’s not enforceable: There’s no signs.”

The county’s Manatee Protection Plan pays for more than 2,300 hours of extra patrolling along the coast during manatee season, he said, but that doesn’t include the Intracoastal Waterway, which is the jurisdiction of the FWC.

The plan calls for the county to devote $200,000 to pay for the extra patrolling, via overtime for existing marine patrol officers from 10 law enforcement agencies. The money isn’t on the chopping block, although Palm Beach County government officials have been
wrestling with how to shrink their budget as property values drop, decimating county revenue.

Although budget cuts mean Delray Beach is cutting its marine patrol, that isn’t one of the county’s partner agencies for manatee protection.

FWC’s Davis said while there is a delay in the Fish & Wildlife signage, the effect on manatees won’t be very noticeable.

“There are signs there already,” he said, and it’s irrelevant to boaters why they are being asked to slow down, whether it’s for safety reasons or to avoid harming manatees.

But the delay worries Ronnie Svenstrup of Highland Beach. As it is, she said, many boaters ignore the signs that are in place and go far too fast. Their speed creates wakes that endanger people in the water, deteriorates mangroves — the pods of which provide one of manatees’ favorite foods, and property damage.

“We need more patrol in this area — more enforcement of the laws that they have,” said Svenstrup, whose condo overlooks the waterway.

Svenstrup, who is chairwoman of the Highland Beach Beaches and Shores Advisory Committee, is a boater herself. Her concerns, she said, have nothing to do with curtailing boaters from using the Lake Worth Lagoon. “I don’t want to stop anybody from having fun,” she said.

She’d like to see a restriction on wave height in addition to the speed limits and for others on the water to report speeding boaters. “If we had more people doing that on the weekends you would see people would start to operate safely,” she said. “Manatees would benefit. People would benefit. Property would benefit.”

While some manatees may be here now, the manatee season in south Florida is Nov. 15 through March 31, said Paul Davis.

Like snow birds, manatees crave the warmth of the waters here as water temperatures in other parts of the state cool.

“They’re snow-mammals, I guess,” he said with a laugh.

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