Special Reports

Manatee's fragile coastal eco-systems identified

MANATEE — With heightened concern about the threatening oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Manatee County officials have updated their contingency plan to protect wildlife and fragile eco-systems along the coast.

The county Area Contingency Plan lists the most sensitive sites that might be affected should oil threaten the local coast.

A unified command based in St. Petersburg and led by the U.S. Coast Guard will decide what strategies to employ to protect the area, based on the county plan.

County officials are slated to meet there with members of the unified command Friday to give the plan a thorough review, said Rob Brown, manager, Environmental Protection Division, Manatee County Natural Resources Department.

Still, officials don’t know where — or if — oil is going to appear.

Manatee-area ecosystems that appear on the list include Perico Bayou; Longboat Pass between Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key; Leffis Key, near Longboat Pass; and Palma Sola Bay, according to maps supplied by the county.

Other areas include a section near Snead Island; Terra Ceia Bay; Bishop Harbor; Mariposa Key, and the mouth of the Braden River, according to the maps.

Also listed are Sister Keys, Emerson Point and the Robinson Preserve.

“We looked at all the sensitive harbors, identified beaches, mangroves, seagrass beds,” said Brown. In the event oil reaches Manatee County, “You’ll see booms all over the place,” he said.

The booms are devices that float and collect or soak up oil. “We identified all critical habitat areas, then went back and created booming strategies,” Brown said.

Oil may appear in the form of tar balls and gooey oil “patties,” rather than a sheet of oil floating atop the water’s surface, which could be burned off or contained, he said.

Booms may not be very effective in handling the tar balls or patties, which could be well below the water’s surface, he noted.

“We’re evaluating the effectiveness of surface booms,” he said. “If the oil comes in as tar balls, which would possibly be subsurface, we might try deflecting it instead.”

Officials are assuming if the spill does appear here, it would move from north to south along the coast, so they hope they’ll be able to see how successful various methods turn out to be in counties farther north, Brown said.

Maps of sensitive areas are marked with a rating system showing the county’s highest priority areas marked with triple diamonds, medium priority areas marked with double diamonds, and low priority spots marked with a single diamond.

“BP has said their priority booming is for places with triple diamonds,” said Brown.

BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well off Louisiana is estimated to be leaking at least 210,000 gallons per day, officials said. Unified command officials said Thursday that the edge of the slick was about 350 miles from St. Petersburg.

Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency for 19 counties, including Manatee and Sarasota, as a result of the spill.

Maps of fragile areas indicate special areas of concern. Emerson Point, for example, lists bird nesting areas, extensive mangrove growth and seagrass beds. Among “species threatened,” the document lists sea turtles, manatees and brown pelicans.

“Right now, it’s just pre-planning, and hopefully we won’t have to do anything,” Brown said.

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