At second hearing, boaters say tweak Snake Bight rule

Not all fishing guides and anglers like the expanse of the no-motor area at Snake Bight in north Florida Bay, but fish, birds and some guides do.

“Fish are not as spooky since there’s not as much invasive activity,” flats guide John Kipp told Everglades National Park managers at a Thursday comment session in Key Largo. “I think [fishing] is a lot better. I’m very happy.”

Snake Bight, a 9,400-acre area east of the park’s mainland Flamingo Visitor Center, became a pole-or-troll zone in January 2011 as a test area to see if limited motor access could protect shallow flats in Florida Bay.

“Bird life in there greater than it’s ever been. Fishing has definitely improved,” guide Dave Denkert said. “We need this type of area. I think it’s one of the best things to happen in years.”

“What surprised me is how the zone has improved so rapidly,” said Everglades National Park Ranger Dave Fowler, who has patrolled Florida Bay waters for more than two decades.

“People are seeing it,” Fowler said. “Some amazing things are happening and it wasn’t that way just a year and three months ago.”

In the zone, boaters can use combustion engines to travel on plane in Tin Can Channel and Snake Bight Channel, and move at slow speed through Jimmie’s Lake. Elsewhere, boats must travel by electric trolling motors or flats push poles to reduce prop-scarring on the shallow flats and sea grasses.

More than 40 people turned out for the workshop to update the boating community on the zone, and take comments on possible changes.

A cordial atmosphere prevailed at the session at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center, but several speakers urged park Superintendent Dan Kimball and staff to consider more boating channels or seasonal rule changes as water depth varies.

Guides said the hours now required to reach the center of Snake Bight has caused boaters and fishermen to seek out other areas, like Garfield Bight, that once drew few visitors.

“Anything past a mile of poling means it’s really no-access,” said flats guide Benny Blanco.

If boats head elsewhere, bottom damage could spread, guide Brian Gwilliams said. “You can see hot spots [of propeller scars] forming at Porpoise Point and Garfield Bight,” Gwilliams said, recommending a small navigation channel into Snake Bight.

“It might be better to tear up something small,” he said. “It’s the difference between 150 prop scars and one that’s 10 feet wide.”

“There are runoffs where you should be able to idle in,” veteran guide Billy Wert said. “Some of those wheel ditches have been used for 50 years.”

“Can’t you put in some access without making it so everyone knows about it?” wondered guide Kerry Wingo.
Professional guides and expert boaters know how to navigate through shallow and tricky passages, park staff acknowledged.

“You’d do it right,” Fowler said, “but it’s the other 10 people we have to worry about.”

Peter Frezza of the Audubon Society’s Tavernier Science Center said a small island inside Snake Bight unexpectedly has become a critical rookery for roseate spoonbills, a water bird.

“Roseates never nested there before but that island could be saving the spoonbill population in Florida Bay,” Frezza said.

Park staff noted that while there are many reports of increased fish and bird life within Snake Bight, they cannot positively credit the no-motor rules. Other ecological factors could be involved.

“Just as there may be collateral damage [from closed areas], there may be collateral positive benefits,” Kimball said.

Kimball said park staff would consider suggestions on specific areas that may be suitable for idle-speed use, and join guides “out on the water to see and learn … We’re going in the right direction,” Kimball said. “The question is how we can make it better.”

Opinions voiced on expanded use of pole-and-troll zones were split.

“I’d like to see more pole-and-troll zones in Florida Bay,” Kipp said. “It benefits anglers and guides.” Blanco disagreed, “I don’t want to see blanket closures everywhere because it’s working at Snake Bight.”

Research is the area is expected to continue for at least two more years.

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