UF survey: Most boaters speed through manatee conservation zones
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Caring but careless boaters are the greatest threat to Florida’s manatees, according to a new University of Florida study that caught more than half of boat drivers speeding through conservation zones despite their professed support for the endangered animals.
“Although boaters across the board had strong conservation attitudes and thought manatees were worth saving, they created one of the biggest threats to manatees by not following the speed limit,” said John Jett, who did the study for his doctoral dissertation in UF’s department of tourism, recreation and sports management.
Hurricanes, cold stress, red tide poisoning and a variety of other maladies threaten manatees, but by far their greatest danger is from watercraft strikes, which account for about a quarter of Florida manatee deaths, Jett said. Over the past decade, manatee deaths have increased 10 percent per year on average, he said.
In Volusia County, where Jett did his research in August, September and October of 2006, at least 30 manatees have been struck and killed by boats since 2000, he said.
Jett said his study differs from others in that in addition to asking boaters about their speed zone compliance while boating, he actually observed their compliance for himself.
From within the vegetation along the banks of the St. Johns River near Blue Springs State Park outside of DeLand, a warm water winter refuge for manatees, Jett used a stopwatch and laser range finder to determine the speeds of 1,669 boats traveling between two points. By recording boat registration numbers he was able to follow up with mail surveys to the same boat operators asking about their speeds and attitudes toward manatee conservation.
An overwhelming majority of the 236 people who responded – 84 percent – said they fully complied with speed limits in manatee zones during their most recent boating experience, but Jett’s observations showed that only 45 percent did. Yet survey results revealed that 71 percent agreed manatees were worth saving despite the need for regulations and 81 percent expressed support for Florida’s boating rules and regulations.
The discrepancy between what people said they do and what they actually did was no surprise, Jett said. “This has been found to be true in studies of recycling behavior,” he said. “When you ask somebody how often they recycle and you start digging through their recycling bins, you find something completely different.”
It is also possible that people either think they comply or know that they don’t but are embarrassed by their behavior, Jett said. “It could be they are trying to reduce the psychological pain associated with not acting in an environmentally friendly way.”
Of those boaters who admitted exceeding the speed limit, the top reason given was not being able to read the signs clearly, followed by hurrying to get out of the rain, the study found.
“Boaters may not always be aware of manatee zone requirements because of difficulty reading or understanding boat speed restriction signs,” he said. “A lot of the boaters I talked to said they weren’t sure how fast they were supposed to go in an idle speed zone.”
Although citations are rarely issued in idle or slow zones based upon clocked mph vessel speeds, 3 mph is approximately the maximum speed allowed in an idle speed zone, while 7 mph is the estimated limit permitted in a slow speed zone, he said.
Little difference was found between the driving speeds of ski boats, pontoons and fishing vessels, he said.
And operators of longer boats were more likely to exceed the speed limit than those of smaller boats, Jett said. “Logically, you would expect larger boats to be more compliant because they are harder to maneuver and the danger of damaging them is greater,” he said.
The study also found operators of rental boats were more prone to follow the speed limit than people who owned their boats. “Perhaps spending less time boating and being less familiar with the waterways makes one more inclined to exercise greater caution and reduce speed,” he said.
Jay Gorzelany, senior biologist at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, said Jett’s research is important because learning more about the issue will likely lead to better educated boaters. “It’s not only a matter of putting up speed zones,” he said. “We need to try to evaluate current management practices and come up with solutions for how to improve compliance, which will ultimately result in a reduction of collisions and risk to manatees from boats.”