CAPE CORAL, Fla. — A year after Ian in the water around Southwest Florida, some of the markers and 'manatee zone' signs are still missing, putting animals at risk.
“If boats are flying through there it’s going to be really bad for the manatees,” said Ranger Rob Howell, Naturalist.
Scattered across Southwest Florida's waterways are markers of no wake zones and manatee zones. These markers are vital in protecting critical habitat as well as the animals that live there.
“Whether it is sea grass, it’s a migration route for manatees and other animals, its shallow water, there could be hazards,” said Howell. “There are a lot of reasons it could be designated a manatee zone.”
Slowly these markers are being replaced, but Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has only finished in Lee County. FWC gave Fox 4 the following statement:
“FWC is in the process of beginning construction projects to replace and repair manatee markers damaged by Hurricane Ian in Sarasota, Collier, and Charlotte Counties.”
And that's just FWC. U.S. Fish and Wildlife have their own version of these markers. And one such missing marker near the mouth of the Caloosahatchee is giving Howell pause.
“The manatee zone here that is going up the Caloosahatchee River, it is going to be a high traffic area here soon in the colder months,” said Howell. “As humans come down and start to get out on the water, manatees are coming back, going up towards to the Fort Myers power plant and Manatee Park where they will spend the winter.”
Those markers still show up on navigational charts, but Howell says boaters keep speeding through these zones.
“For the tourists coming down, obviously if there is no sign they don’t know,” said Howell. “You don’t need a boating license to be out on a boat in Florida.”
“A lot of locals don’t understand or know why it is a slow speed zone in certain areas,” said Howell. “So, they don’t think they need to go with it. And if there is not a sign, they can plead innocence on it.”
Boat strikes are the second highest killer of manatees, right behind starvation. Boat strikes deaths in 2023 have already surpassed last year's numbers, with 77 manatees being killed by watercraft according to FWC.
“The issue comes when people don’t understand why these laws are around or even that they are around, which is why we want these signs back up,” said Howell.