The new, much taller Pinellas Bayway bridge is having some unintended consequences for boaters: sea grass beds and manatees, according to the mayor of St. Pete Beach.
"The old bridge was flat across the water. and so really, the only place for boaters, especially larger vessels to cross, was at the draw bridge," said Mayor Maria Lowe. "With the increased elevation, both at the east and west side of the bridge, smaller boats and even some of the larger vessels can now go under the bridge at places they previously could not fit under."
Lowe said from her dock, she has recently took video of a manatee eating sea grass and has also spotted many boaters crossing beneath the bridge in shallow waters where they end up destroying manatee habitat.
"You can often see (boaters) get stuck completely to a stand still, and then they're having to back up, and every time they're having to shift their propeller, it is really decimating the sea grass beds underneath," she said. "It's really a sad circumstance because they are going through the area quite often."
Last month, St. Pete Beach city commissioners unanimously approved a request to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to include the waters leading west into McPherson Bayou from the Intracoastal Waterway around the Pinellas Bayway bridge as a warm season slow speed manatee protection zone.
FWC spokeswoman, Carli Segelson, wrote in an email, "We are currently in the process of taking comments on the proposed manatee protection zones for western Pinellas County." Segelson said the entire process takes years to complete.
Boater William Roelfsema said he agrees the area should be a manatee protection zone.
"I think it should be all no wake zone underneath the bridge," he said. "People just have to stay in the designated area."
Roelfsema said he believes the only boaters who might object to expanding the manatee protection zone are fishing captains.
"They want to get there fast," he said. "It does slow them down a little bit."
In the formal letter to FWC, St. Pete Beach city commissioners also asked the agency to include the Blind Pass Inlet/Channel area to be declared a manatee protection zone.