MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. - Officers with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission soon will begin using radar guns to catch speeding boaters on the county's inshore waterways.
"There hasn't been a whole lot of enforcement (of boating speed limits)," said Lt. Vann Streety, supervisor of the FWC officers in Martin County, "but that's going to change."
Streety said no timetable has been determined for using the radar guns, but he added the devices "are at the shop right now getting ready to go, getting calibrated and certified. And once they're ready, we'll be ready to use them."
Radar guns have been available to FWC officers since the 1990s and are used in other areas of the state to catch speeding boaters.
"It's just another tool at our disposal," Streety said.
Because FWC officers are charged with protecting marine mammals, Streety said speeding boaters will be stopped for violating the 25-mph manatee zone speed limits in most Martin County waters.
"It's a public safety issue as well as a resource protection issue," he said. "Slowing down to protect manatees helps protect boaters as well. One scratches the other's back, and vice versa."
According to the FWC's Research Institute in St. Petersburg, 11 manatees have been killed by watercraft in Martin County from the beginning of 2009 to now.
A 2009 report by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce indicates that between 1996 and 2006, eight of the 76 dolphins known to live in the Indian River Lagoon in Martin and St. Lucie counties had been hit by boats. The report cites photographic evidence that two dolphin in the area, a 2-month-old calf and a breeding female, died from boat strikes.
Streety said getting a boating citation for speeding is like getting a speeding ticket on the road and carries a $95 fine.
Streety said FWC officers won't be "hard and fast" on the 25 mph limit.
Karl Wickstrom, founder of the Stuart-based Florida Sportsman magazine and a board member of the Rivers Coalition environmental group, said the FWC's efforts are unwarranted.
"There aren't that many boaters going over 25 (mph)," he said. "On the water, 25 mph is actually pretty fast, certainly adequate."
Wickstrom said it's important for boats to travel fast enough to go "on plane," meaning that they skip across waves for a smooth, efficient ride.
"There are people who want you stay off plane the whole time you're (in inshore waters)," he said. "That's just crazy. It would take you an extra hour to go out the (St. Lucie) Inlet and back. And most boats can go on plane at speeds less than 25 mph."
Streety said officers "will take into consideration the fact that some boats have to go 20 to 25 mph to plane out. We're not out to hammer boaters. We're out to ensure that the resource we're charged with protecting and the people we're charged with protecting co-exist harmoniously.
"Our approach is to educate boaters about the 25-mph speed limit in manatee zones. Sometimes that education comes at the cost of a written warning, and sometimes it comes at the cost of a citation."
Streety said officers will concentrate on the Crossroads area where several bodies of water meet: the St. Lucie Inlet from the east, the Indian River Lagoon from the north, the St. Lucie River from the northwest, the Manatee Pocket from the southwest and the Intracoastal Waterway from the south.
"The Crossroads is such a high-volume traffic area," Streety said, "because you get boats coming from all directions. I can guarantee you that speeding is a problems at the Crossroads."
Wickstrom agreed the Crossroads has a lot of boat traffic but said most boaters slow down because of the congestion.
"(The FWC) ought to do some real good research to see who's going at what speed," Wickstrom said.
Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, mayor of Sewall's Point, which juts into the Crossroads from the north between the lagoon and the St. Lucie River, said residents there have been asking FWC officers to crack down on speeding boaters.
"It's amazing how many boats people here see speeding off Sewall's Point," Thurlow-Lippisch said. "There's no reason to be going that speed."
John Smith, president of the Marine Industries Association of the Treasure Coast, said boaters speeding on the water is "no more a problem than driver speeding on (Interstate) 95. And if (the FWC officers) put speed guns out on the water, I doubt they will stop speeders any more than they do on 95."MANATEE DEATHSAccording to information from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Research Institute in St. Petersburg, 11 manatees have been killed by watercraft in Martin County from the beginning of 2009 to now.
Carli Segelson, media relations coordinator at the institute, noted that the site where a manatee carcass was found is not necessarily the place where it died.
"Winds and tides can transport carcasses to other locations," Segelson wrote in a note accompanying the data. "Also, please note that two of these watercraft-related mortalities