Recreational boating is a primary way residents and tourists use Florida’s estuarine resources. The state has more than 1 million registered recreational boats, an average of about 1 boat for every 17 residents.
As recreational boating soars in popularity, so does the pressure on Florida’s coastal communities for public infrastructure, increased boater access, and more boating services.
And so too does the need for increased protection of Florida’s estuaries, the area where fresh water meets saltwater, and the state’s most fragile coastal habitat.
How do Florida’s communities balance growth in recreational boating with conservation of the coastal environment?
One key focus of Florida Sea Grant’s research is the development of a geographic information system (GIS) for boating, a powerful tool that helps communities better understand the scope of boating issues, so they in turn can give boaters more freedom and access to coastal waters while minimizing environmental impacts.
On the land side, most communities already benefit from a vast array of GIS applications for purposes of local and regional planning. But for coastal communities, that kind of geographic information typically stops at the water’s edge, or doesn’t exist at all. Mix in the web of manatee protection zones, no-wake areas, and other local, state, and federal boating restrictions, and it’s clear to see that communities need a better understanding of how, where, and when boaters use coastal waters.
The recreational boating GIS that Sea Grant is developing obtains rich, descriptive information from extensive surveys of boaters, then captures and displays that data in geographically-referenced maps.
The profiles of recreational waterway use that emerge provide resource managers and community planners the information they need to enhance boater needs while protecting fragile coastal habitat.
For instance, the GIS can delineate and map land-side service or market areas for individual boat ramps, and map water-use patterns generated by individual ramps.
This means that communities can track which ramps are overused and underused, so they can better evaluate ramp fee proposals, or be more competitive for state dollars set aside for boating facility improvement assistance.
The recreational boating GIS can also spatially display popular boater departure sites, routes, and destinations, which gives counties insight on where problems may occur with areas of environmental concern, such as manatee protection zones.
The information could help reduce the number of manatee deaths and injuries from collisions with boats.
The recreational boating GIS began as a collaborative effort between Sea Grant and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWC FWRI).
The list of partners has grown to include the FWC Boating and Waterways Section, the West Coast Inland Navigation District, the Bay County Planning Department, and the natural resources departments of Sarasota, Lee and Brevard counties.