JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has extended federal emergency manatee protection to five former state manatee protection zones in Lee County, Fla. effective immediately, the FWS reported in a press release this morning.
The FWS said it made the decision to establish emergency protection for manatees in these areas after carefully assessing the impacts of recent state court decisions. A Florida judge last year ruled that the zones were unconstitutional.
The areas affected by this emergency designation are in Matlacha Pass, Estero Bay, the southwest side of Pine Island, eastern San Carlos Bay and the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River.
These areas are in the same general vicinity where a manatee was recently found dead of watercraft inflicted wounds, the FWS said.
"We are taking this emergency action in areas where we believe an immediate danger to manatees exists," said Sam Hamilton, the FWS southeast regional director. "As we have seen recently, manatees in these areas are at risk of being killed or injured in collisions with boats. As the summer approaches and water temperatures continue to rise, more and more manatees will come to these areas."
Rules in protected areas
The federal protection areas correspond exactly to the previous state zones, and the restrictions now in place are also the same as the previous state restrictions, FWS said.
They require watercraft to proceed at slow speed outside designated channels, and at less than 25 miles per hour in the designated channels. However, under federal law, there are no exemptions to the federally designated manatee protection areas.
Businesses and individuals who previously held state exemption permits should be aware that those permits are no longer valid, the FWS said.
The federal manatee refuge will not eliminate access rights for owners of waterway properties, and public and private property owners are permitted to access property that lies within a designated manatee refuge. They may conduct any authorized boating activity by operating watercraft at slow speed according to posted limits in designated refuge areas, the FWS said.
Additional information on this action, including maps of the designated areas, is available on the FWS Web site.