■ BY MARCY SHORTUSE
If the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has its way, a new ban could be put in place that would not allow fishing and boating around some of our neighboring barrier islands. At public workshops held earlier this month, the FWC posed the question regarding modifications to five “critical wildlife areas” (CWAs) in Southwest Florida, including the islands of Useppa, Sanibel/Captiva, Hemp Key and the Broken Islands.
Workshops were held at Rookery Island on August 8, Pine Island Sound on August 9 and Estero Bay on August 10. The primary reason for the proposal is birds, if you look at the information the FWC has put forth regarding the suggestion. A representative for Audubon Florida agreed.
“Florida is renowned for its wealth of charismatic waterbirds, but they have fewer and fewer safe places to nest and rest,” said Julie Wraithmell, deputy executive director for Audubon Florida. “FWC’s leadership on this effort will help ensure these places thrive for future generations of birds and people alike.”
FWC Chairman Brian Yablonski said that in his mind it isn’t just about birds. He was, however, somewhat vague about what else is involved. “This initiative to create more CWAs throughout the state is not just for bird watchers and wildlife aficionados. This is something for everyone,” he said.
FWC media representative Gary Morse gave the example of the Rookery Island critical wildlife area, which is part of the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. It was established as a CWA in 1993 for the year-round protection of nesting and roosting wading birds. Over the years, bird activity shifted to two other nearby islands.
Increased use of Rookery Bay has led to increased disturbance of birds on these islands. The re-establishment proposal calls for expanding the CWA to include other islands within Rookery Bay.
This would allow for closure of other islands as bird activity shifts. However, at this time, only the island with the greatest amount of use would be closed with a 300-foot buffer.
The FWC is also considering a seasonal closure and boating buffer for Broken Islands and Useppa Oyster Bar.
They are also considering a year-round closure and 150-foot buffer around Hemp Key. Morse said buffers around nesting islands typically range from 50 to 300 feet and are established to provide adequate separation between people and birds.
If approved, the buffers will be posted with in-water signs to provide proper notification for boaters.
So far there is no word on how the proposal was taken at the three public workshops.