|"Nobody has looked at boating issues with this type of detailed information before."|
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
More than a million boaters ply Florida’s coastal waters every year, contributing significantly to the state’s economy and lifestyle. Knowing where recreational boaters go and what they do once they are on the water can help coastal decision makers better manage the resources that attract boaters to Florida in the first place.
“With increasing numbers of boats and resulting safety and habitat issues, there’s a need for improved boater education and awareness, and waterway management and planning that includes access,” says Charles Sidman, associate director of research for Florida Sea Grant.
A tool that is helping with these types of decisions is a Recreational Boating GIS (geographic information system) for some Florida waterways. Spatial and behavioral information was collected for the GIS that can be used to characterize boater preferences and map on-water activities and use patterns.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Coastal Management Program, University of Florida Sea Grant Program, and local governments are collaborating to develop the Recreational Boating GIS, which they hope will eventually cover the entire state.
“I think it’s significant,” says Bill Sargent, research scientist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Nobody has looked at boating issues with this type of detailed information before. Having really good, on-the-ground data to prove traffic patterns and such just hasn’t been available.”
The GIS is generating the most interest from local and county governments working to develop mandated manatee-protection and comprehensive management plans, and struggling with issues such as marine facility siting and public waterway access, Sidman says.
“This kind of data can be used to support future planning efforts to maintain recreational boating access and site new boating infrastructure in a way that sustains the estuarine environment,” he says.
Recreational boating is big business in U.S. coastal states, but nowhere is it bigger than in Florida, where the recreational season is year-round.
According to the Marine Industries Association of Florida, recreational boating and related expenditures pump $18.4 billion annually into Florida’s economy. More than one million recreational boats are registered in Florida—more than any other state in the nation—and several hundred thousand more are brought over the state line each year.
With the number of boats in the state increasing every year, coastal management issues such as waterway access, user conflicts, and resource impacts, including seagrass scarring and impacts to manatee populations, have become critical concerns, Sidman says.
State agencies and local governments “want to provide access to boaters, but they want to balance that with environmental protection, as well as boating safety,” he says.
Bob Swett, coordinator of the Florida Sea Grant Boating and Waterway Management Program, notes that issues relating to recreational boating are not just seen in Florida. “The bottom line is, this is a national issue that many states are dealing with.”
While Florida has numerous state, federal, and local boating restriction zones, such as manatee protection zones and speed restrictions for safety or maritime property protection, the bulk of existing geographic information used for coastal planning stops at the water’s edge.
Resource managers in Florida “have a pretty good handle on the situation with the natural resources and know what management is already in place,” Sargent notes, but spatial information is needed to characterize the use of recreational boating facilities, traffic patterns, on-water activities, preferred water-access points, and destinations.
To develop the GIS, a pilot project was begun in 2000 for Charlotte Harbor. An extensive survey was mailed to 500 boaters using addresses randomly selected from Florida’s Vessel Title Registration System, a database of motorized-boat owners in the state.
The information that was collected was used to “develop a rudimentary GIS that combined both spatial and behavioral data,” Sidman says. “Once we determined, ‘Yes the method was successful,’ we conducted a full-scale implementation for the Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay boating regions,” beginning in 2003.
Since then, project partners have worked with local governments to initiate additional characterizations covering much of Southwest Florida waterways, as well as Brevard County on the eastern coast of the state and Bay County in the panhandle. A project is currently underway in Collier County.
As a result of the pilot study, “we made significant improvements to the questionnaire’s design,” Sidman says. The survey evolved into a 24 by 36 inch map of the waterways with a series of questions on the alternate side.
Thousands of survey recipients have used the map to locate trip departure sites, travel routes, favorite destinations, and congested areas. Survey questions collect information on vessel type, departure dates and times, time spent on the water, and activities, as well as problems and needed improvements.
How the boaters are selected for the surveys also was changed. Surveys now target boaters observed using area access facilities, such as boat ramps, marinas, and private docks. Vessel and boat trailer registration numbers are used to find addresses on the state vessel registration system or on the U.S. Coast Guard Documented Vessel database. A private data vendor helps identify out-of-state boaters.
“This has allowed us to identify where boaters live relative to the facilities they are using,” Sidman notes.
Map information from returned surveys is digitized, and descriptive information about boaters is linked to the spatial data in the GIS. The data, provided on CD-ROM, can be used to map travel corridors and identify congested areas and popular boating destinations. Information such as user group, vessel type, vessel draft, and activity also can be accessed.
The data have been used in the development of a system to establish and evaluate existing manatee speed zones and protection areas, to support marine facility siting and manatee protection plan updates, and to help develop state-mandated management plans.
“This information will go a long way towards planning for public access and generating science-based information that can be used for resource protection efforts and to address boater needs,” Sidman says. “The Recreational Boating GIS is an important data visualization tool for gaining public and interagency consensus regarding waterway management planning.”
For the Sea Grant publication list that includes the recreational boating characterization reports, point your browser to www.flseagrant.org/program_areas/waterfront/waterfront_pm.htm. For more information on the Florida Recreational Boating GIS, you may contact Charles Sidman at (352) 392-1837, or firstname.lastname@example.org, Bob Swett at (352) 392-6233, or email@example.com, or Bill Sargent at (727) 896-8626, ext. 3022, or Bill.Sargent@myFWC.com.