The estuaries that make up the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves are dynamic and ecologically complex. Seagrasses, mud flats and oyster bars lie beneath the shallow, inshore waters of these estuaries. These submerged resources provide numerous ecosystem functions within the estuaries of southwest Florida and are often used as the measure of overall estuarine health. In addition to being essential fish habitat, oyster reefs bio-assimilate nutrients, filter water, reduce turbidity and stabilize shorelines. Seagrass beds actively produce oxygen and store carbon as well as provide shelter for many commercially important marine species. They also maintain water clarity and stabilize habitat bottom where they grow. Degradation of these habitats can negatively affect water quality, the stability of surrounding habitats and the species that depend on them for food and habitat.
Impacts from boat propellers to these natural resources have become a concern both statewide and within the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves. Boat propellers can tear up seagrass beds, also known as prop scarring. It can take 5-10 years for a seagrass bed to recover from one prop scar incident. Boat wakes can erode the shoreline and disturb oyster reefs while boat props can drag along the bottom and dislodge oyster clumps. In addition to environmental costs, running aground can be costly for boaters. Increasing damage to seagrass beds from improper boating techniques led to the passing of legislation in 2009 making it illegal to cause destruction to seagrass beds in Florida aquatic preserves. Destruction of seagrass within an aquatic preserve can carry a penalty of up to $1,000. This is in addition to damage that may be inflicted to a boat’s prop or lower unit during grounding events.
The public is encouraged to enjoy the aquatic preserves while employing proper boating techniques to help preserve the natural resources for future generations to enjoy. Prop scars can be reduced by operating your boat in appropriate water depths, using a navigation chart, depth finder and becoming familiar with the local waters and changing tides. Boat operators should watch for buoys which mark the edges of some seagrass beds, travel in marked channels, abide by manatee and other slow and idle zones and read the water. A seagrass bed often appears as a large dark shadow underwater relative to the surrounding areas. If you do run aground, turn off the engine, raise the motor and walk, or pole, your boat back out to deeper waters. Boat U.S offers a free boating safety course, approved by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and other boater resources are available.