Everglades damage: GPS partly to blame

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Inexperienced boaters and those relying too heavily on GPS are leaving their mark on the seagrass beds of Everglades National Park, leading officials to seek mandatory boater education.

The National Park Service expects to approve mandatory education for Florida Bay boaters, with the goal to substantially decrease groundings and revitalize the prop-scarred seagrass beds of the Everglades.

An aerial view of a boat being prepared for towing after grounding in Everglades National Park. It can take seagrass beds several years to recover from prop damage like this.

“A key part of the public input we’ve received is that a robust education program is necessary,” says Fred Herling, park planner for Everglades National Park.

When that program will be implemented and how it will be enforced and funded may not be known until 2011. That’s when park officials expect to adopt a new plan to manage and preserve the park, which includes Florida Bay. “We’re a long way away from making any formal decisions,” says Herling.

The new management plan was delayed in 2007 after the Florida Keys boating and fishing community expressed strong opposition to the park’s initial proposal to restrict motorized boats in bay water less than 3 feet deep. “That’s 75 percent of Florida Bay,” says Bob Baker, 59, of Islamorada, Fla., a fishing guide in the Keys for 25 years. “That’s ridiculous.”

Baker and other longtime fishing guides say inexperienced boaters are to blame for the torn-up seagrass beds.

“Novice boaters rely too much on electronics and don’t watch where they’re going,” says Tad Burke, commodore of the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association. “Not only are GPS maps not completely accurate, but you have to consider the fact that a hard north and northeast wind will blow water out of Florida Bay. It may be deep enough to navigate one day, then a front moves through and the water that was 2 feet is now only about 8 inches. GPS systems can’t tell them that, so they give them a false sense of security.”

Tad Burke

The park’s current plan was adopted in 1979. Since then, the amount of boating in Florida Bay has more than doubled, says Herling. Florida Bay accounts for nearly a third of the 1.5

million-acre park. Seagrass supports hundreds of species of fish at various stages of their lives and stabilizes the bottom sediments, helping to absorb excess nutrients from land runoff, according to Everglades National Park officials.

The park currently has limited navigational restrictions, such as no-wake and idle-speed zones, according to Bonnie Foist, the park’s chief ranger who oversees a force of roughly 25 rangers. However, boaters who run aground can be fined for damaging national resources, she says. “It depends on the severity of the damage,” says Foist. “Officers can warn you, issue a $150 fine, or federal charges can be filed and a judge can fine you up to $5,000.”

Other factors have contributed to the groundings, such as damaged or missing navigation aids, park officials say. Navigational markers in the bay consist of PVC pipes inserted into the bay bottom, says Foist. Signs with arrows pointing to the channel are attached to the pipes, says Foist.

“Sometimes we just don’t have the finances, materials or staff to replace them right away,” says Foist, adding that the markers don’t even conform to Coast Guard specifications because they are not red or green.

Replacing the markers with Coast Guard-approved aids to navigation is another goal behind the new plan, according to Herling.

Education model

Park service studies have documented the increase of damaged seagrass beds, says Herling.

“Clearly the trend is that things are getting worse,” says Herling. “And natural restoration is very hard. Until you protect an area, it is very difficult to restore that area.”

A seagrass bed that receives minor damage, like cut-up grass, can recuperate in a year, but if the soil is damaged recovery takes several years, says Herling.

The increase of boats powered with two and three outboards hasn’t helped, either, says Rob Clift, senior marine outreach coordinator for the National Parks Conservation Association’s Sun Coast Region Field Office. “I’ve seen double- and even triple-prop scars,” says Clift. “This is a very difficult place to navigate. It’s no place for novice boaters.”

The association, a 340,000-member independent organization that supports the national parks, had launched its effort to educate the boaters of Florida Bay before the park service’s management plan update, says Clift. The association hopes to begin its free online education program, called Eco-Mariner, this spring (www.ecomariner.org).

Eco-Mariner will use video, audio and animation to educate users. “This will be a place where you can get knowledge that takes years for [fishing] guides to learn,” says Clift.

The park service sees Eco-Mariner as a predecessor to its education program, according to Herling. “It’s a great effort on their part,” he says. “This is the kind of education we’re talking about.”

The course was set to go online starting April 22, Earth Day, when Eco-Mariner also will celebrate the opening of an education center at Green Turtle Hammock in Islamorada.

It all comes down to getting back to boating basics, says chief ranger Foist.

“You need to be able to read the water and not take shortcuts that lead to groundings,” she says. “Go back to [Coast Guard] Rule No. 5: post a lookout. When the water changes color or the wading birds are close, it’s time to change course.”

For Florida Bay boating information, go to www.nps.gov or www.npca.org.

This article originally appeared in the Florida & the South Home Waters Section of the May 2009 issue.