News Press

December 19, 2010


Sawfish rule causes concern about dredging near Bonita



A recent critical habitat rule about juvenile smalltooth sawfish has led to scrutiny over dredging plans in the waters around Bonita Springs.


“That rule is causing a lot of concerns and problems,” said Shelley Norton, smalltooth sawfish and Johnson seagrass program manager for National Marine Fisheries Service. The rule took effect in September 2009.


Chuck Listowski, executive director of the West Coast Inland Navigation District, recently secured a permit to dredge Government Cut and the shallow waterway between Bonita Beach Road and the Imperial River.


The permit has conditions for the smalltooth sawfish, a shark-like ray that is designated as critically endangered.


“Just like with manatees there are provisions, such as if there is a sawtooth observed, the operation needs to be shut down,” Listowski said. “There are some other conditions that we are not sure about.”


Listowski said he plans to meet soon with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to find out more.


“I need to understand what the conditions are, and some of them are hard to understand,” he said.


Listowski hopes to have all the information by January and to advertise for a contractor at the beginning of the new year. He expects the dredging to begin in February.


The juvenile smalltooth sawfish, which also is seen in Cape Coral canals and the Caloosahatchee River, has declined about 95 percent during the last century, according to the agency. Juveniles live in shallow, forested watery nurseries such as near red mangroves. To protect this key habitat, new rules were established for permits.


Counties must submit application to the Corps of Engineers, which then sends the application to the agency for review.


“We need to know the information and analyze the effects in the critical habitat,” Norton said. “What is causing a lot of changes in the permits that are out there is the critical habitat rule protects the nursery habitat and the sawfish.”


A request for modifications will be made if any project jeopardizes a species.


Similar rules have been in effect for years in manatee areas. For example, if manatees are found in an area to be dredged, one modification might be to have a manatee spotter on the barge who alerts crews to stop work if a manatee swims by.


Norton says crews probably won’t need a spotter for sawfish. Instead, they are looking more at how to protect the environment instead of individual fish. She had no details on what that protection might be.


“This is a new rule, so I don’t know ... if there is any extra time required (for permitting),” Norton said. “It depends on the project, too.”