Boating safety urged as Memorial Day weekend approaches
Memorial Day weekend begins Florida's busy boating season, and law enforcement officials are warning that summertime can be a fatal time for boaters.
Police joined the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at a boating safety news conference Wednesday. They warned boaters that enforcement of boating under the influence and slow speed zones will be in full force this weekend.
So will enforcement of rules that protect threatened manatees, state biologists said.
Florida leads the nation in boating accidents and deaths, according to an FWC report from 2021. Northeast Florida saw its share last summer.
In mid-June 2022, the FWC said one person was killed and another injured when their 20-foot boat hit a large boathouse dock on Black Creek. On July 4, a man died in St. Johns County when his boat hit Rattlesnake Island as he cruised on the Intracoastal Waterway, the FWC reported.
This weekend, law enforcement will be there to slow down boaters and protect manatees, Jacksonville Sheriff's Office Marine Unit Lt. Rich Buoye said. Their biggest concern: boaters under the influence, he said.
"Speed is going to kill you like on the roadways, and alcohol consumption, and just not paying attention, having too much of a good time," Buoye said. "Designate someone who's not going to drink, and that will be your captain and just enjoy yourself. Pay attention to what's around you and realize that we don't own the waterways. We have to share them, and we have to share them with each other and we have to share them with the wildlife."
Boaters are also asked to obey slow-wake and no-wake zones on the St. Johns River to protect the manatee, a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. Only about 7,500 manatees have been recorded in Florida's waterways, FWC marine biologist Nadia Gordon said.
"This year in Northeast Florida, we have had nine manatee rescues and 20 manatee carcasses," Gordon said. "Of those 20 carcasses, eight were in Duval County. Your awareness makes a difference."
According to FWC statistics:
- Florida ranked first in the nation in 2021 in boating accidents, with 751.
- Fifty-nine fatal accidents resulted in 60 deaths in 2021. Twenty-two percent of those were due to someone falling overboard.
- The leading cause of death in fatal boating accidents was drowning, with 33 deaths (55%). Alcohol or drug-use played a role in 23% of boating deaths.
- May was the month with the highest number of deaths statewide (10).
- Eighty-three percent of boat operators in fatal accidents lacked maritime education.
- Personal watercraft were involved in 26% of boating accidents, with 17 deaths and 162 injuries from 195 accidents.
Manatees are protected by a state Sanctuary Act, as well as federal protection by both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, the FWC said.
Buoye reminds boaters that violating a manatee wake zone has major consequences. Federal fines range from $93 to $25,000 and up to six months in jail under the endangered species act.
State officials also warned boaters to leave manatees alone and never mess with the GPS tracking device attached to the top of their tail fin.
Anyone who sees an injured or dead manate is asked to report it to the FWC at this website.