June 28, 2008

County To Study Pole-Or-Troll Zone

By Susan M. Green, Tampa Tribune, Fla.

Jun. 28--RUSKIN -- The idea of banning outboard motors in the Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve has not gathered steam on a local task force considering the possibility of Hillsborough County designating its first pole-or-troll zone.

In fact, a proposal to limit boaters to push poles or trolling motors in Little Cockroach Bay, a much smaller target, drew outcry from boaters and fishermen when county scientists broached the proposal more than a year ago. Scientists said the proposal would give scarred seagrass beds a chance to heal.

But Gus Muench, a longtime crabber pushing for a no-motor zone throughout the seagrass meadows of Cockroach Bay, remains undeterred in his quest. Last week, he took the matter to county commissioners in their role as the Environmental Protection Commission board.

"If this was an upland park, where you had tire tracks tearing up the land, we could visually see that and say, 'OK, folks, you can go in there, but you can walk in there, not take your vehicles in there,'" Muench told the board. "I'm saying we need to do more."

Commissioners, at their June 19 meeting, directed the EPC staff to have a technical committee review the proposal. Rick Garrity, EPC's executive director, said Monday by telephone that the agency will have in-house scientists and staff members evaluate it in the next month or so and bring a recommendation to commissioners in August or September.

Meanwhile, EPC's Tom Ash, who has been shepherding discussions of boating restrictions in Little Cockroach Bay for about a year, will continue seeking input from local scientists and state and federal agencies about the latest recommendation from the local task force.

Task force members in April voted to support restrictions on motorized boats in Little Cockroach Bay if regulators would create a channel snaking north-south through the popular fishing hole and establish a higher-speed corridor at each end to allow boaters to get in and out quickly.

The request would involve tinkering with a county-imposed slow-speed zone for manatee protection.

EPC officials said Monday that county commissioners have the authority to designate a pole-or-troll zone in Hillsborough waters, including Cockroach Bay, which is a state-designated preserve.

However, state and federal agencies also have jurisdiction and could impose their restrictions if they don't support the county's actions. The county's slow-speed manatee protection zones were set up with the blessing of state and federal regulators. Manipulating those to allow higher-speed corridors could lead to wasted effort if state and federal officials use their authority to reinstate the existing manatee protections.

"That's my worry with rushing through this," Ash said.

Other officials have fretted about lack of funding for enforcement of new boating restrictions.

The Little Cockroach Bay poll-or-troll zone was proposed in spring 2007 after aerial photographs showed numerous boat propeller scars in the aquatic preserve. Ash said Monday the EPC staff has documented more than 20,000 gouges in seagrass beds on the north side of the boat launch at the end of Cockroach Bay Road. More are presumed to lie to the south.

Muench has served on several environmental preservation committees and is a founder of the Cockroach Bay Users Group and Little Manatee Preservation Committee. He said he would like to see the aquatic preserve designated as a sanctuary or marine park to highlight its importance, but he does not propose to ban fishing or canoeing -- just motorized boats south of the Little Manatee River.

Muench said growth in southern Hillsborough and northern Manatee County will lead to more boaters and more propeller scars in Cockroach Bay.

"What we're doing," he said, "is we're allowing people to tear up the habitat. I just think we need to do more."

Reporter Susan M. Green can be reached at (813) 865-1566 or [email protected]


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