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Date of Issue: April 07, 2005

Sandscript

Grim boating stats, new Boca Grande tarpon rules, red tide waning?

The 2004 boating statistics are out, and the news isn't good.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has said that boating fatalities reached 68 last year, up from 64 in 2003. That increase reflects a deadly upward trend since 2000.

Pinellas County was No. 2 with seven fatalities. Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, led the list with 57. Palm Beach County had the highest property damage in boating accidents at $8.69 million.

There are now 982,907 boats registered in the Sunshine State, up from 978,225 in 2003.

"Even the good news wasn't really good," according to a FWC spokesperson. "The statistic that recreational boating accidents dipped to 743 from 1,005 in 2003 reflects a change in the amount of damage an accident has to involve before it counts. In 2003, an accident had to involve $500 damage to be included in the statistics. It had to involve $2,000 in damage to make the cut in 2004 due to a change in the law."

And it's not new boaters that are causing the problems out on the water. "More than half the boat operators involved in fatal boating accidents last year had more than 100 hours of boat operation experience," according to the FWC.

"The typical boating accident victim is not a child or adolescent," according to FWC statistics. "He's a 22- to 50-year-old male with many hours of experience in operating a vessel. In most cases, if he sustained an injury, it was not life-threatening. If he did not survive the accident, most likely he drowned, because he thought it uncomfortable, unbecoming or unnecessary to wear a life jacket - even if he couldn't swim. Drowning continued to be the leading cause of death in Florida's boating accidents - 65 percent."

New life jackets aren't all that bulky or cumbersome these days, and the FWC said, "It's like the seatbelt in your car. If you aren't wearing it when you find yourself a few seconds from a collision, you may have waited too late."

Alcohol continues to be a leading contributor to fatal boating incidents. Remember that the effects of booze are exacerbated by the hot sun and physical strain of being on the water all day. FWC suggests you find a designated driver for a boat, just as if it were a bunch of folks out for a pub crawl on a Friday night.

Don't forget to take a boating safety course if you haven't gone through one in a few years, and remember that boat operators under the age of 21 are required to take the course. The Power Squadron and Coast Guard Auxiliary offer the courses all the time; check the announcements in The Islander for the next offering.

And, please, be careful out there.

Crazy times due in Boca Grande Pass

Some of the most congested waters in the state lie within Boca Grande Pass during tarpon season every spring. It's not an exaggeration to say that you can literally walk on water from boat to boat during the height of the silver king run.

FWC officials are usually out in force to keep the boating crazies at bay, and this year they're going to be enforcing some new tarpon rules that went into effect last Friday.

Prohibited is the use of more than three fishing lines per vessel to harvest any species of fish in Boca Grande Pass during April, May and June. Yes, any species and, yes, no more than three lines in the water at a time, regardless of how many people are aboard the boat - and how big the boat.

There is also a new rule that targets all the fishing detritus that ends up on the bottom of the pass. With thousands of fishers losing tens of thousands of hooks, jigs, sinkers, leaders and other stuff, the bottom is really fouled. Cleanup efforts in the past few years have yanked tons of lead weights, crab traps, anchors and other material off the bottom, but there's lots left.

So to reduce the clutter, a new rule "prohibits use of breakaway gear to harvest any fish in the pass during April, May and June. Breakaway gear is defined as ‘any bob, float, weight, lure or spoon that is affixed to a fishing line or hook with wire, line, rubber bands, plastic ties or other fasteners designed to break off when a fish is caught.'"

The breakaway rule will take an educational slant this year, with FWC officers explaining rather than ticketing. Next year, though, expect to have to pay a fine for any breakaway fishing items.

You can get more information by going online at myfwc.com/marine/Tarpon_brochure.pdf.

Good red tide news

FWC officials are cautiously optimistic about the diminishment of the red tide bloom that has plagued beachgoers with scratchy throats and sneezy noses for the past few months.

"The red tide bloom along the Southwest coast of Florida appears to be dissipating," the FWC said Friday. Unfortunately for us, though, "The only above-normal concentrations of Karenia brevis, the Florida red tide organism, in this week's coastal samples were from Manatee and Sarasota counties."

There were low readings in Palma Sola Bay and off Cortez, as well as in New Pass just south of Longboat Key. There were also a few dead fish found around Mullet Key just north of Anna Maria Island in Tampa Bay, and in Longboat Pass.

Let's hope the reports signal the end of red tide for a while - like forever.

Mangrove 101

Perhaps a little mangrove primer is in order.

Mangroves are a vital element of the food chain in bays or estuaries throughout the world, providing food, habitat and sediment containment.

There are three species of mangroves: red, black and white, or buttonwood.

Red mangroves are generally found closest to the water. They're easily distinguished by bright red "prop roots" that arch out into the water. As the roots grow, bay bottom becomes trapped within the root structure, forming land and giving the trees the name "the plants that walk." Red mangroves have a whitish-gray bark and the seeds are up to 12 inches in length, shaped kind of like a cigar, and drop and float in the water until finding shore and starting another colony.

Black mangroves, although sometimes found at the water's edge, are generally more removed from the wave action at the shoreline. Blacks are easily distinguished by their pheumataphores, upside-down growing roots that serve as a salt emission device for the trees. Black mangroves also have darker bark than the other varieties.

White mangroves, sometimes called buttonwood, are found in the sandy uplands. They look a lot like Brazilian pepper plants.

Wetlands, including mangrove forests, have suffered a general decline since Florida's first white settlers arrived in the 1850s. It has been estimated that the state had 20,325,000 acres of wetlands in 1850; thanks to dredging, filling and other waterfront development, more than 9,287,000 acres had been destroyed by 1985. That 46-percent loss works out to about 100 square miles per year, according to Mote Marine Laboratory Senior Scientist Dr. Ernest Estevez.

In the Sarasota Bay area - from the north end of Anna Maria Island south to the Venice jetties in Sarasota County – wetland loss from 1950 to 1990 was estimated to be 39 percent. Unfortunately, Anna Maria Sound suffered the greatest loss of wetlands and mangroves at 89 percent. Anna Maria Sound is from north Anna Maria Island to Longboat Pass.

Federal, state, regional and local officials have recognized the benefits of mangroves and other shoreline plants and have haltingly enacted stringent restrictions on their pruning or cutting. Based on the numbers listed, it's a little late to save some of the larger mangrove forests, but there are still pockets of near-pristine habitat that have been protected and preserved. The Island has two such nature preserves at Grassy Point in Holmes Beach and Leffis Key in Bradenton Beach.

And the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program is working on restoring mangrove areas by acquiring property and planting wetland species in an effort to restore some of the lost productivity of the plants around the region. About 200 acres of wetlands have been planted in the last decade, with more plantings to come in the years ahead.

At least the premise by development interests in the 1950s and '60s to "get rid of that foul swamp and replace it with nice, clean seawalls and pretty concrete houses" has been changed for the better regarding mangroves.

Sandscript factoid

In the mid-1980s, Florida officials decided that any mangrove pruning had to involve putting the cut branches and leaves in the water. It seems that they had received a study that mangrove detritus, the decaying plant debris, was a wonderful source of food for a whole gamut of marine critters, and the officials figured they could assuage the environmental outcry about allowing pruning of plants by dumping the debris back into the environment.

There was just one flaw with the reasoning about the detritus, though. Mangroves are a tough wood. Sure, when it's rotten it breaks down easily, but a freshly cut mangrove branch was found to have a half-life of something like 17 years before it broke down. Think petrified.

State officials quietly eliminated the dumping policy a couple of years after implementation.

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