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Community shows support for Wulfert Flats pole-and-troll zone

By Staff | Jan 15, 2009

About 40 concerned residents, boaters and commercial fisherman attended Tuesday night’s public meeting at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where officials from Lee County and the refuge discussed details of the ongoing Blind Pass dredging project and the proposed Wulfert Flats pole-and-troll zone.

Steve Boutelle of the Lee County Department of Natural Resources led the 60-minute session, which included a PowerPoint presentation about the history of Blind Pass, the current and future management of that region and what needs to be done to protect existing seagrass beds located within the aquatic preserve.

“We’re at a point right now where the County Commissioners are ready to sign off on this, but they wanted us to make one last push for public comment or any proposed changes to our plan,” said Boutelle, who also conducted meetings in St. James City and Fort Myers earlier this week.

According to information provided during Tuesday’s session, Blind Pass will be dredged from the Gulf of Mexico into the Pine Island Sound Aquatic Preserve. Dredging within the aquatic preserve had been strongly discouraged due to the important ecological values associated with these state-designated protected areas.

Boutelle indicated that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) determined that the dredging within this preserve area could occur, with the permit requirement that a pole-and-troll zone be established in order to mitigate for the loss of seagrass due to dredging.

Boaters entering pole-and-troll zones are not be allowed to use internal combustion engines anywhere within those zones. In order to navigate through those areas, they would be required to use an electric trolling motor, push poles or paddles.

“You can enter this area, but as a boater, you will have to shut off your combustion engines,” said Boutelle. “That’s the concept that’s out there. We would like your input about how this might impact the boaters and residents who are using this area.”

First to speak was Pete Quasius, environmental policy advocate for the Collier County Audubon Society. He fully backed the county’s proposed pole-and-troll zone for Wulfert Flats and urged his fellow commercial fishing guides to lend their support as well.

“I am completely convinced that this is in the public interest,” Quasius said. “There’s real reason for there to be areas where combustion engines are not appropriate.”

Several audience members offered questions about how much of the existing navigation channels will be lost to the proposed zones, why this area would consider establishing a pole-and-troll zone when it is already a designated slow speed/no wake zone for manatees and what environmental benefits might be seen as a result of this action.

“From my perspective, we’re being shown that there’s going to be less room (for boaters) than what we were shown before,” said Jeff Springer, a boater and resident of Calusa Shores.

Robert Neal, manager of the Blind Pass dredging project, responded that he planned on placing temporary bouys within Wulfert Flats to indicate to boaters where the proposed pole-and-troll zone would be located. He hoped to be able to install those bouys by this weekend.

Boutelle also explained why it was vital to protect the existing seagrass beds, which can dramatically impact several recreational and commercial species of fish. Seagrass beds serve as a habitat, a nursery area and food source for many marine species. Establishing a pole-and-troll zone will assist in the recovery of damaged seagrass beds, which they hope will also help improve water quality within our coastal eco-system.

“We’ll be maintaining this area for the next five years, after which we can evaluate and re-address the health of the seagrass beds moving into the future,” Boutelle noted.

“We’re hoping that the water quality will improve and that fishing will improve,” added Paul Tritaik, manager of the refuge.

Captiva resident Dave Jensen, co-owner of Jensen’s Marina, threw his support behind establishing pole-and-troll zones within Wulfert Flats by volunteering to distribute education materials to all marine fueling locations across the islands as well as to his customers. Boutelle thanked Jensen for his support and indicated that, if established, getting information about the zone into the hands of all boaters frequenting Southwest Florida waterways was “critical.”

“Thank you for your attention to this and for allowing a public forum like this so we can voice our concerns,” Sanibel resident Paul Andrews told the panel. “And keep doing what you’re doing!”