With residents fretting that speeding boaters will harm a pod of manatees that has been making daily treks through Siesta Key’s Grand Canal, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer last week promised more patrolling to underscore the need for vessels to move slowly.
Lt. Rob Gerkin told Siesta Key Association members during their regular meeting Sept. 1, “It just takes a couple of tickets written” to spread the word that boaters need to obey the sign calling for slow speed in the canal. With both the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol and FWC patrolling the area, he added, boaters will slow down.
Rachel Herman, with Sarasota County Natural Resources, told the board and approximately 12 audience members that the speed rules approved in June 2010 called for boaters to move no faster than 25 mph in the Grand Canal.
When asked the difference between “slow speed” and “idle speed,” Gerkin said idle speed is just fast enough to maintain the forward movement of a vessel. Slow speed means a minimum of wake.
“We get asked that every weekend,” said Sgt. Gary Kraayenbrink of the Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol. “I tell everybody to treat (both speeds) the same and you’ll never get in trouble.”
When SKA board member Ann Kaplan questioned Herman about whether the speed in the Grand Canal should have been posted “idle” instead of “slow,” Herman responded that the state-approved map of the canal shows slow speed.
Michael Solum, an environmental specialist with the county, told the group that tourists typically are not the ones breaking the canal speed limit.
“It’s residents, and they know what they’re doing,” he said.
Kraayenbrink had noted earlier that the slow-speed sign is posted as you enter the canal. “I double-checked on Sunday,” he added.
Dave Thomas, a member of the SKA’s environmental committee, said the sign “is a little bit angled,” pointing toward Skier’s Island.
“When you turn into the canal,” Kraayenbrink replied, “it’s very visible.”
Thomas said, however, “Nobody pulls the throttle back until they get to that sign … You’re already 10 yards, 15 yards into the canal.”
Board member Bob Waechter asked whether another sign could be posted on the canal bridge that goes over Midnight Pass Road near the Mangrove Point Road intersection.
“I could put 100 signs up there, and it’s not going to change (boaters’ behavior),” Solum said. “I can’t make people read (signs).”
He said he had observed boaters traveling at 35 mph, only 3 feet away from a slow-speed sign.
Sarasota County Commission Chairwoman Nora Patterson said that the bridge over Midnight Pass Road is state property, but she felt the SKA board could gain permission for a sign on it without too much trouble.
Solum said new speed signs from the state are being posted all over the county’s waterways.
“Probably (we’re) 80 to 90% done in that process,” he said.
SKA board member Bob Waechter, who chaired the county committee that recommended changes in the manatee protection zones, then pointed out that one sign he had not seen replaced is just south of the Stickney Point Bridge. He had exchanged emails with state officials over the past year, he said, asking when the sign would be moved. During those exchanges, Waechter said, state officials had promised repeatedly that a new sign would be put up in the appropriate place soon.
Solum responded that the contractor replacing the signs had experienced labor problems; that was why the replacement process had taken so long.
“But you know what,” Patterson said, “that particular sign impacts not only the manatees, but it also impacts people who live along the area. It really is a narrow (channel), relatively speaking, where currently people coming from under the bridge gun their boats in just the wrong place. Maybe you could tell your contractor this should be the next sign that goes in.”
Solum said he would relay that information.
Waechter said that the current sign is about 200 yards north of a natural constriction in the channel. His committee members determined early in their discussions that it should be relocated, because boaters heading south who are unfamiliar with the area tend to accelerate too early, as Patterson pointed out, posing extra danger to any manatees in the channel.
Solum also told the group that some slow-speed zones are being expanded to give manatees extra room to maneuver away from boaters.