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Educated Boaters Will Protect Coastal Environment

GAINESVILLE—Educating the boaters on Florida’s crowded waterways will do more to preserve the fragile coastal ecosystem than regulating boaters, according to a study by a University of Florida researcher.

The study found boaters care about their environment and respond well to campaigns to educate them about sensitive seagrass beds and corals, said geography Professor Gustavo Antonini, a researcher with UF’s Sea Grant College and the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

For the past eight years, Antonini has been studying whether boaters will change how they use waterways when they are informed about the impact their vessels have on the environment.

“We found that, indeed, you can influence over half the boaters in how they anchor out,” Antonini said.

“Boaters are free-spirited individuals,” Antonini said. “But because of the threat to that free-spirited lifestyle, boaters are beginning to come together, to see how they can deal with environmental issues from a boater’s viewpoint.”

With almost 1 million recreational boats using Florida’s coastal waters, Antonini’s research could have far-reaching impacts, said Marion Clarke, Sea Grant assistant dean. P>”This is a new approach to regulation of environmental resources,” Clarke said. “This non-regulatory approach to waterway and anchorage management is unique. It basically provides a guide for self-imposed regulation.”

Regulatory approaches to keeping boats from anchoring in various locations left many boaters bewildered, Antonini said. Cities and counties were developing their own restrictions on where and how long a boat could anchor. A boater might be able to stay 24 hours offshore on one end of an island but at the other end would be able to stay only 12 hours before shoving off.

Few cities and counties, however, had the resources to enforce their anchorage regulations. Meanwhile, seagrass beds and corals in the most popular spots were getting torn up as anchors were dropped and pulled up.

“Boaters were anchoring in the wrong places and didn’t know they were impacting grasses and corals. They wouldn’t do that knowingly,” Antonini said. “So we’re giving them information on places to anchor and how many boats can anchor at each site without harming grasses and corals.

“We’re not just asking them to make safety decisions, but environmental decisions as well. That’s new,” Antonini said.

The study of anchorage locations extends from lower Tampa Bay to Marco Island. As part of the study, Antonini has collaborated with BAIL, the Boaters’ Action and Information League, and other agencies to prepare and distribute to Southwest Florida boaters a guidebook to 47 anchorages in the study area.

The book contains maps of anchorage locations, discusses environmentally safe anchoring practices and even includes some folksy advice on marine manners.

Antonini notes that in some anchorage locations, even as few as 10 boats could be stressful to the environment. Seagrass beds serve as a nursery for fish as long as they are safe from propellers and anchors.

Based on this baseline research, the state Department of Environmental Protection signed an agreement in 1995 endorsing a five-year pilot program that includes boater education, and management and monitoring of the Southwest Florida anchorages.

“We’ve exported onto the water many of our social ills, like congestion. But we can’t deal with this problem by enforcement alone,” Antonini said. “The best way is to try to educate 90 or so percent of the boaters who, if armed with the right information, will make the right decisions. They want their kids to enjoy what they are enjoying now.”

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