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More room to boat in Tampa Bay

Fewer security zones means the return of some favorite fishing spots, including the SunshineSkywalkBridge

Fewer security zones means the return of some favorite fishing spots, including the SunshineSkywalkBridge

Anglers and others who boat on Florida’s TampaBay can enjoy more of their home waters now that the Coast Guard has trimmed back some Homeland Security zones where boaters can’t go, but soon locals also may have to undergo a background check to fish other waters.

The SunshineSkywayBridge, a popular fishing spot for snook, has been opened to anglers in boats again.

“Instead of not letting you anchor anywhere along the length of the bridge, the main [ship] channel is the only place you can’t anchor and go fishing,” says Bill Allbright, of the Florida Council of Yacht Clubs. “But you still can’t tie up to the bridge.”

Security zones north of Pendola Point in EastBay and south of the Tampa Port Authority’s REK piers on Hookers Point are canceled, too, and the security zone at the TECO Big Bend Power Plant has been changed to include the cooling channel south of the power plant.

At the same time, the Coast Guard says it probably will establish a new security zone extending 500 yards either side of Manbirtee Key, a shoal island just west of Port Manatee where the grass flats yield plentiful catches of snook and redfish. Site of an underwater natural gas pipeline, the waters are a favorite fishing hole of charter captains but presumably they also harbor a juicy target for terrorists. The Coast Guard says it plans to let anglers continue fishing around the key, but they will have to submit to a background check and then fly a pennant or some other easily identifiable marker on their boat. At a recent meeting with anglers, Joseph A. Servidio, commander of Coast Guard sector St. Petersburg, said he wants to equip anglers authorized to fish there with a simple communications device and enlist them in a Port Zone Watch reporting boats in the zone without a pennant.

There are two parts to providing adequate security at this location, says Lt. Cmdr. Marc Knowlton, chief of port security and waterways management for Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg. The Coast Guard is going to have to restrict the number of people that go into the area, and the ones that it authorizes to fish there can be its eyes and ears.

“What we’re trying to do is get better at enforcing security zones,” says Knowlton. The Guard has to focus its enforcement where it most counts — thus the easing of restrictions at the Sunshine bridge, where attempts to maintain a security zone along its entire length became too burdensome — and enlist the public’s help.

“Your citizens are your best eyes and ears out there,” he says.

Rules and notices of public hearings for the new security zones were published in the Federal Register on Nov. 6 and 8. Knowlton anticipates some kind of security zone for Manbirtee Key early in 2008.

A member of the Area Maritime Security Committee that authored the new zones, Allbright says the Coast Guard in most cases trimmed back zones to free up marine patrol units for other work, but police agencies also are tightening up enforcement of the ones that remain.

The Coast Guard and marine police plan to maintain a central data base of unauthorized boats caught in security zones, Allbright said. Officers carrying laptops will be able to call up the data base from the water, identify repeat offenders and get tough on ones that keep ignoring zones, he said. A boater could be socked with a fine of $250 or more. Maximum penalties are a civil fine of $32,500 per violation and a criminal sentence of six years in jail and $250,000 fine.

“If you’re fishing in a security zone they’re going to come and get you,” he says. Security zones are established in the vicinity of vital bridges, commercial ports, power plants and military bases, and around cruise ships and vessels carrying dangerous cargo.

Allbright, whose organization represents 38 Florida yacht clubs, said another important change is new signs alerting boaters to security zones. The orange-and-black signs will carry a diamond and cross on them and one of two messages: “Security zone, no entry within 150 feet of ships, pier or shore,” or “Security zone, no entry.”

The Coast Guard also has issued a brochure — a “chartlet” — of the bay area showing nine security zones and explaining the new rules. Boaters must stay 100 yards away from all cruise ships moored or in transit in TampaBay and all vessels moored in the bay and carrying dangerous cargos. Between 100 and 200 yards of these cruise and cargo ships, boaters must move at minimum speed necessary to navigate safely. In some parts of the bay, boaters have to keep 1,000 yards fore and aft of any vessel under way and carrying anhydrous ammonia or natural gas. In other parts of the bay, that security zone for moving ships carrying dangerous cargo is 500 yards. The brochure showing where these zones are and the rules that apply are available online at