Tag Archives: Feature

FWC, Mote rescue ailing juvenile manatee found in Holmes Beach basin

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FWC and Mote corral an ailing juvenile manatee in the basin at the Waterline Marina, Holmes Beach, load it on an FWC manatee rescue boat and whisk it to Tampa Zoo for evaluation and treatment. Islander Photos: Gillian Kendall
A FWC manatee rescue team and representatives from Mote load and prepare a juvenile manatee May 17 on the FWC boat for transport to Tampa.

By Gillian Kendall, Special to The Islander

A juvenile manatee in distress was rescued May 17 from the basin on Marina Drive in Holmes Beach.

The ailing marine mammal had been spotted by Steve Ryan of Cincinnati, a guest at the Waterline Marina, Resort and Beach Club, 5325 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach.

Ryan went to the hotel reception desk for help, where supervisor Giselle Brock phoned the hotline for Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

Brock passed her phone to another employee, an engineer, who went outdoors to keep track of the animal’s location. “Danny has the kindest heart,” Brock said. “I knew he would help.”

Among the docks in the marina, a small crowd gathered, watching for air bubbles. The manatee was alive, but barely moving, it’s head surfacing only occasionally to breathe.

Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, Andy Garrett, manatee rescue coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, had been getting calls and texts. “We were hearing about a small, lethargic animal with a weird lesion, which didn’t seem to be acting right. We got photos and we agreed it was emaciated.”

Garrett gathered a team for the rescue.

“We had seven FWC people there and three from Mote got there, too. When we got there, we split up. Two guys, a volunteer named Tim and one of our biologists, Sean Tennant, went in the water,” Garrett said.

The two men stood chest-deep in the murky brown water as the team put a large net with floats in the water. “We looped some net out away from the boat slip and had the two swimmers kind of corral it into the net,” said Garrett. “They just gently encouraged it to go where we wanted it to go.”

Within a few minutes, the net surrounding the manatee was hauled in gently but rapidly, allowing the manatee to be lifted aboard the FWC boat, which then quickly departed.

Onboard, a worker poured buckets of water over the manatee to protect its skin and encourage it to breathe, Garrett said.

They young manatee was on its way to get help.

Despite the team’s best efforts, Garrett said he could not predict the eventual outcome. “I don’t know what’s going on with that manatee; it’s in bad shape. It’s about a six-and-a-half-foot male, probably a few years old at most.

“It had some other lesions. In one area it looked like the top layer of skin was missing; it has a weird, almost cut look to it. I didn’t get a whole lot of time to look at it. We got going as soon as we got the animal back in our boat.”

After they landed the boat, they took the manatee to Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park in Tampa.

Garrett said it looked as if a layer of skin was missing. “If it was a disease you’d expect the edges to be necrotic, but this was so clean-cut. We’re hopeful Zoo Tampa can figure out what’s going on.”

At Zoo Tampa, Garrett said, the staff will draw blood and look for infections. “If it’s underweight, which this one seems to be, they may try to hydrate it with fluids and give it some antibiotics.”

The overall goal, he said, is to rehab the manatee to go back out where it was found.

Garrett said his team handles about 100 stranded manatees a year. The calls for help are irregular and come from all over the state.

“We can go weeks without anything happening, or sometimes it’s more frequent.”

Once an animal is identified as requiring assistance, Garrett said, “we want to make sure we have a safe plan — it can be dangerous.” Manatees can weigh more than 1,000 pounds.

“Human safety comes first, and then the animal safety is very important as well. This rescue was a lot safer because the animal was small and thin and not likely to give us trouble,” he said.

“We rely on the public to let us know about animals in distress,” Garrett said. “We get a lot of calls at the FWC hotline, 888-404-3922, 24 hours a day.”

Cortez stone crab season — one of the worst

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On the Cortez waterfront at 119th Street May 16, idle boats hold traps, ropes, buoys and other crabbing gear — a day after the annual stone crab season came to a close in Florida. Islander Photo: Kathy Prucnell
Idle stone crab traps are stored May 16 alongside the 119th Street docks following the end of the 2018-19 season.

The 2018-19 stone crab season was one of the worst in Florida history and “a lot of it is due to the red tide.”

That was Fish and Wildlife Research Institute researcher Ryan Gandy’s assessment May 16.

The research arm for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the FWRI, among other researchers and fishers, placed blame on the toxicity of red tide and the stranglehold of low oxygen in the water that resulted from high concentrations of Karenia brevis.

The stone crab fishery closed for the season May 16. FWC limits the season to five months annually to sustain the fishery. It will reopen Oct. 15.

“Most fisherman stopped by the first of the year,” Gandy said about the stone crab harvest.

“There were no crabs to be caught from the mouth of Tampa Bay to Marco Island,” he added.

John Banyas, who owns the Swordfish Grill & Tiki Bar, N.E. Taylor Boatworks and the Cortez Bait & Seafood market in Cortez, is licensed for about 2,500 crab traps, but didn’t put them all out after testing and suspecting a bad year.

No crabs found along local shore

Paul Moore, who, with Banyas, prepares, checks and harvests the stone crab claws from the traps set in the Gulf of Mexico, agreed with Gandy’s assessment in a May 15 interview with The Islander.

“There was nothing off our local shore,” said Moore, who started crabbing 39 years ago with his father, fishing between St. Pete and Boca Grande for the now-defunct family business, Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant on Longboat Key.

Different this season, he said, was the lack of stone crabs in local waters.

Moore spoke to others in Sarasota, Venice and Fort Myers, he said, who faced similar issues.

“Anywhere red tide went, the crabs were driven away,” he added.

For Moore and Banyas, supplying the Cortez restaurant and market meant additional time and cost, setting traps and harvesting claws mostly north of John’s

Pass and Tarpon Springs and traveling long distances to recover traps disbursed by storms.

“Earlier in the season, we did catch good crab up there,” he said, but that meant a lot of travel, more fuel and expense.

K. brevis events

At Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Phil Gravinese studies the plight of stone crab with experiments in tanks, as well as from a dock in Sarasota Bay at Mote.

A year ago, Gravinese said the fishery is cyclical, declining overall since 2000. At the time, he cited a variety of possible causes — environmental changes, hurricanes, overfishing since 1996 and an influx of octopi, the stone crab’s archenemy.

In April, Gravinese and other researchers at Mote published “Karenia brevis causes high mortality and impaired swimming behavior of Florida stone crab larvae” in the journal of Harmful Algae.

The study referenced FWC data showing a 63% drop in landings — from 322,807 pounds in 2015 to 118,079 pounds in 2018 — and concludes high concentrations of red tide caused stone crab larvae to die, interfered with the reproductive cycle and reduces the fishery for two-three years.

The study also concluded that larvae can’t swim away from highly toxic blooms with K. brevis concentrations of more than 1 million cells per liter.

Mote found larvae would die within 48 hours in high concentrations of K. brevis — and noted more than 90 million cells per liter were found at the height of red tide in Sarasota.

“On this coastline, the research suggests the decline in stone crab resiliency because red tide is recurring over the years,” Gravinese said in a May 16 interview with The Islander.

Coastal degradation and nutrient accumulation degrade water quality, “potentially exacerbating K. brevis events,” according to the Mote study.

Landings and test lines

In his position at FWRI, Gandy monitors stone crab test lines throughout the state and records landings and market values for the FWC.
Gravinese and Gandy work together, share data and conclusions.

Based on early landings reports, Gandy projected there would be less than 2 million pounds of stone crab claws — only claws 2 3/4 or larger can be legally harvested — 700,000 pounds lower than the average year. And while the market values must be reported, Gandy said he doesn’t project them.

“I don’t think the statewide decline can be attributed to red tide,” Gravinese said about Gandy’s projections, adding the reason is likely due to fishery management.

Gandy equivocates. “We cannot say for certain the red tide impacted the statewide catch of stone crab this season. Some areas had good catch and other moderate catch,” he said.

Over the past 20 years, the state has experienced lower landing years independent of red tide.

Asked whether FWC is considering changes in stone crab regulations — such as shorter seasons or stricter restrictions — Gandy said no. While the FWC changes its rules from time to time, he didn’t see any coming.

Looking to the future

The Mote and FWC/FWRI studies also point to a few bright spots.

Larvae exposed to low concentrations of red tide were unaffected, according to Gravinese.

“Animals don’t seem to show negative impacts in low concentrations of red tide,” he said.

Mitigation efforts — such as canal ozonation and clay seeding being researched by Mote — also provide hope for stone crab larvae at medium concentrations of K. brevis, Gravinese added.

The FWC started test lines in 1988 with traps in the Tampa Bay area, including a line off the north end of Anna Maria Island, and added lines in southwest Florida in 2005 and the Big Bend region in January 2006.

A Pine Island/Boca Grande test line was installed in August 2018 after the red tide intensified.

The FWC worked with Pine Island fishers to set lines of 20 traps offshore to gauge the impact of red tide on the stone crab population, with traps in varying depths in mid-August. The data collection ended in October.

“Red tide clearly impacted the stone crab fishery from Manatee through Lee counties this season,” including a stone crab die off near Pine and Sanibel islands, Gandy said of the results.

“We had the hurricane in 2017 and red tide this year,” he added, and called it a “tough couple years,” from which the fishery can “hopefully” bounce back.

Brown algae interrupts environmental respite

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Capt. Scott Moore shot this photo of a blanket of brown algae floating in Anna Maria Sound May 17 just north of the Anna Maria Island Bridge and Manatee Avenue.
Lyngbya wollei algae floats alongside the fishing docks May 16 at 119th Street West in Cortez. Islander Photo: Kathy Prucnell

“The scientists can talk, but they are not out here on the water 200 days a year. It’s the worst brown drift algae I’ve ever seen here.”

So says Capt. Scott Moore, who has been fishing Sarasota Bay and the waters of Anna Maria Island for almost 40 years. He knows what should and should not be here.

According to Moore, Lyngbya wollei, the scientific name for the brown algae, is rare in such large concentrations.

“We get this brown drift every spring — some call it gumbo — but not like this. It’s common in small doses,” Moore told The Islander May 17. “But this has been horrific.”

Moore has his theory on the algae: nutrients.

He pointed to all the dead sea life that sank and decomposed in the Gulf of Mexico and the bays during the red tide of 2018.

“It all just ferments at the bottom, makes all those nutrients as it decomposes and then feeds algae, such as the brown drift, and we get this huge bloom that rises,” Moore said. “Eventually, it all sinks again, but not before the smell, and it can take the oxygen levels in canals down to zero.”

Larry Brand, a professor of marine biology and ecology at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, is an expert on red tide, but he hasn’t really weighed in with much concern for the recent brown drift that first became apparent near Fort Myers.

“My colleagues identified it. It first started appearing down around Lemon Bay and Cape Coral. Excess nutrients are what causes HABs — harmful algal blooms — and this is another one,” Brand told The Islander May 15.

“There are hundreds of algae constantly competing for nutrients. Sometimes the toxic algae, such as red tide, win out, and we have a big bloom like the one that just passed. Other times, the non-toxic algae dominate, and we don’t even notice them,” Brand said.

Brand said he is not aware of any massive spill or other event that might have dumped a large quantity of nutrients into Southwest Florida waters.

“People don’t want to come in contact with this algae,” he said. “Eventually, it produces gas bubbles and sinks back down. It’s the surface winds that move it around.”

Fran Derr and her neighbors in the Key Royale community of Holmes Beach were happy the algae there had begun to dissipate.

“We have a group of neighbors that walk,” Derr said, and they called attention to the HAB. “The smell was horrendous for a few days, but it seems to have cleared out,” she reported May 16.

Kelly Richmond, communications lead for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said the brown algae is a brackish water type and that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection began testing samples May 9 in Holmes Beach. The DEP had earlier identified the bloom as Lyngbya wollei, a cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, that can cause skin irritations, damage beaches and impair habitats.

The good news on the drifting brown gumbo?

Moore says it will disappear.

“It always comes in the spring. By mid-summer, it’s gone historically,” he said.

More about red tide

Locals still recovering from the effects of the red tide bloom the stretched into January 2019, are hopeful there won’t be a repeat.

The effects of red tide first appeared on Anna Maria Island in August 2018 and eventually stretched as far north as the Florida Panhandle before it subsided.

FWC samples turned up very low concentrations of red tide — less than 10,000 parts per liter — May 13 during routine testing at the Coquina Boat Ramp in Bradenton Beach.

At such low concentrations, red tide is not apparent in the water — no dead fish and no human irritation.

The low-level algae report was the only positive sampling along the Southwest Florida coastline at press time May 20.

Brand said there is no way to predict red tide. He maintains development of another red tide bloom is tied to ocean currents.

“If the loop current in the Gulf of Mexico is in the southern position, historical data shows no red tide occurring. On the other hand, if its farther north, it’s a better chance,” Brand said.

For now, Moore continues to take anglers to fish in the waters surrounding Anna Maria Island and hopes officials will take measures to help stop growth of red tide and brown algae.

“It’s been proven aerators work to help stop algae. The bubbles mess with the algae growth. Aeration systems installed at the mouths of our canals could help keep algae out of our waterways and improve the overall health of our waters,” Moore said.

DEP weighs in on brown algae

In an email from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Dee Ann Miller included information about brown algae, which was recently observed in Manatee County waters:

“The cyanobacteria sampled in Manatee County are found worldwide and are a natural part of our freshwater, brackish and marine environments in Florida.”

The email said algae typically increases in the spring and summer months, when water temperatures and daylight hours increase.

They are photosynthetic organisms and, like plants, convert sunlight into energy, using nutrients from their environment.

Higher levels of nutrients can lead to higher levels of growth. As it floats and begins to decay, the alga can emit a foul, rotten egg odor from the production of gas and organic breakdown.

The DEP advises people to avoid contact with algae and stay out of the water if a bloom is visible.

However, not all alga is harmful to humans or marine life.

People are encouraged to report blooms to the DEP hotline at 1-855-305-3903 or online at floridadep.gov/dear/algal-bloom.

Former CNOBB members deposed in Sunshine suit

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Rose Vincent, left, defendant in the ongoing Bradenton Beach lawsuit against six former board members, defendant John Metz’s attorney Jodi Ruberg and Carol and Michael Harrington await depositions May 14 at Vincent M. Lucentes & Associates Court Reporters in Bradenton. Islander Photo: ChrisAnn Silver Esformes

The depositions push on as neither side will settle in a lawsuit that has cost Bradenton Beach taxpayers more than $200,000.

Michael Harrington, former webmaster for the now-defunct neighborhood group Concerned Neighbors of Bradenton Beach, was deposed May 14 in a lawsuit initiated in August 2017 by ex-Mayor Jack Clarke and joined by the city against six former board members for allegedly violating the Sunshine Law.

Harrington, not a defendant in the suit, initially was deposed Jan. 23, but attorney Robert Watrous, representing Clarke and the city in the lawsuit, asked for more time with Harrington in light of information that emerged during the first deposition.

Additionally, Harrington’s wife, Carol, also a CNOBB member, was deposed May 14.

Carol Harrington is sister to Bill Vincent, CNOBB founder, and attended and assisted with CNOBB meetings.

The six defendants — Reed Mapes, Tjet Martin, John Metz, Patty Shay and Bill and Rose Vincent — were members of the grass-roots group when they allegedly violated the Sunshine Law by discussing city business at CNOBB meetings and through phone calls, emails and text messages.

Mapes, Metz, Shay and Bill Vincent served on the P&Z board and Martin and Rose Vincent were members of the Scenic Waves Partnership Committee.

Taking deposition

Watrous asked Carol Harrington if she attended any P&Z board or community redevelopment agency meetings, to which she replied, “No.”

He also established, through the course of the deposition, that Carol Harrington rarely attended city commission meetings, but asked her if the topics discussed at CNOBB meetings were similar to those in a city commission meeting.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I think they had different goals. CNOBB was for people to voice their opinions.”

Watrous asked her if members of CNOBB were “like-minded people” displeased with the quality of life in the city.

She answered that people were upset that the city wasn’t doing more during the moratorium on permitting large vacation rental homes and had discussed that matter at meetings.

She also said she did not remember hearing any discussion at CNOBB about prohibiting a parking garage — a topic that the group allegedly discussed at meetings, and a topic that could have come before P&Z and Waves members.

She said, if anything, the group discussed providing registered voters with information regarding stipulations on parking garages included in the city charter.

“It might have been something discussed as far as information going out to registered voters,” Harrington said.

Watrous asked her if CNOBB members were for or against a parking garage.

“I think they would be against it,” she responded,” But it wasn’t mandatory to think that.”

Analyzing computers

Michael Harrington uploaded information to the CNOBB website, including meeting agendas and recordings.

Throughout discovery he provided nearly 10,000 documents to Watrous and his paralegal, Michael Barfield, including emails, text messages and other exchanges of information between himself and the defendants, or other members of CNOBB, as well as web information relating to the organization.

During his Jan. 23 deposition, Harrington told Watrous he allowed the computer he used for CNOBB business to be destroyed. He said it had crashed and would have been more expensive to repair than replace.

Near the end of that proceeding, Watrous said he planned to continue the deposition and would file a motion to have a forensic evaluation of Michael Harrington’s current computer to recover emails or other documents he suspected Harrington deleted upon the initiation of the lawsuit.

During the May 14 deposition, Watrous asked Harrington to describe his computers — past and present — and explain what happened to each.

Harrington said the computer he used for CNOBB business crashed and the hard drive was not salvageable. But he said most of the work he did for CNOBB was stored online, through emails — not on his hard drive — and those records already were provided.

Shortly after the lawsuit was initiated, the CNOBB website, including meeting recordings, was taken offline.

Watrous asked Harrington if Bill Vincent asked him to take down the site or if he did it of his own volition.

“I was told, I believe, by Mr. Vincent that we were dissolving because of the brouhaha,” Harrington said. “I took the website down and that was it.”

“Did anyone ask you to take the website down?” Watrous asked.”

“I don’t remember that,” Harrington responded. “I took it down because it was defunct.”

At the conclusion of Michael Harrington’s May 14 deposition, Watrous said that if Michael Harrington can produce the login information for the Dropbox account he used while managing information for CNOBB, the plaintiff might not require a forensic investigation.

Attorney Jodi Ruberg, standing in for Metz’s attorney, Thomas Shults, attended the deposition, but did not cross-examine Carol or Michael Harrington.

At least 10 more depositions are planned, including Metz, who is scheduled to be deposed May 30. Depositions also are planned for Rose Vincent, city planner Alan Garrett, building official Steve Gilbert, the mayor and city commissioners, several more CNOBB members, as well as a continuation of city attorney Ricinda Perry’s March 20 deposition.

A trial is planned for mid-July.

Contractor finalizes Anna Maria City Pier substructure, walkway up next

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I+iconSOUTHEAST was halfway done installing stringers — support boards laid the length of the walkway — and utility lines along the new Anna Maria City Pier walkway as of May 15, according to Mayor Dan Murphy. Islander Photo: Jack Elka

The understructure of the new Anna Maria City Pier almost is complete.

Decking for the city pier is next.

Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy said May 15 that i+iconSOUTHEAST was halfway through installing stringers — vertically set support planks laid the length of the walkway — as well as utility lines for communication, water, gas and electricity.

The contractor also was working on installing concrete bents, caps connecting pairs of pilings with beams to support decking, near the T-end between the easternmost walkway piles and a set of pilings to the east, which will become a boat landing.

Murphy said he expected work on the walkway and boat landing understructure to finish by May 24, but added it could wrap up earlier in the week.

He said i+icon hasn’t run into an issue since pile-driving.

“Everything is going fine,” Murphy said. “We’re still on track to complete the platform portion by the end of August or beginning of September.”

The next step in construction is to install ipe decking on the walkway and, at the same time, a concrete deck on the T-end, according to Murphy.

Murphy said the city received the ipe decking and a portion of the concrete T-end deck, but was awaiting the remainder. He added that the materials will be brought to the Kingfish Boat Ramp in Holmes Beach, where they will be loaded onto a barge.

The city issued a request for proposals to construct the restaurant and bait shop at the T-end, work that will begin after the walkway and T-end is complete.

The city began building a new pier after tearing down the 106-year-old pier in 2018. The structure was in need of repair and then destroyed by Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

Brown ‘gumbo’ algae invades island

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Another bout of brown algae returns to Key Royale Drive May 6 at 65th Street in Holmes Beach. Islander Photo: Christine Wright
Brown algae blankets the Key Royale canal at 65th Street during the last week of March and first week of May. Islander Photo: Christine Wright
A closeup May 9 shows the fiberous sheath of oblong-shaped algae at 66th Street. Islander Photo: Kathy Prucnell

“People call it gumbo,” Holmes Beach Mayor Judy Titsworth said May 9.

At the end of April and beginning of May, pad-like algal blooms pushed into waters around Anna Maria Island, hung around for about a week and receded.

But then the unwanted visitor came back strong and stinky.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection began testing May 9 in Holmes Beach to determine the toxicity of the large brownish oblong algae mats.

The DEP collected samples from two Holmes Beach locations — bayside at 26th Street and the canal north of Westbay Point & Moorings, 6500 Flotilla Drive.

Also May 9, DEP spokeswoman Weesam Khoury would not speculate on why the bloom was occurring and did not know when testing results would be made available.

The samples will be analyzed in Tallahassee for toxicity and algal type.

Similar testing from Lake Okeechobee, along the Calaloosahatchee River to Fort Myers, has been performed in the past month. And, in places, whitish mold has grown on the brown pads.

As to why sites were chosen, she said there were several reports from Charlotte County to Manatee County that prompted testing for six types of “microcystins,” including toxic cyanobacteria, known as the blue-green algae, and three other toxins.

“Residents and visitors are always advised to avoid coming into contact with algae and to stay out of the water where a visible bloom is present,” Khoury said in a May 9 email, adding the DEP will monitor and retest persistent blooms.

In Sarasota County, the DEP identified Lyngbya wollei, a large diameter cyanobacteria with the same thick sheath and dense mats, according to Stephannie Kettle, of Mote Marine Laboratory.

Lyngbya nuisance blooms are known to degrade water quality, damage beaches and shorelines, cause skin irritation, reduce biodiversity and impair habitat and food webs. “Mote doesn’t work with this type of algae,” Kettle said.

Mote, as well as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, research and monitor another algae, Karenia brevis, also known as red tide, which pushed into southwest Florida in high concentrations between August 2017 and January 2019, causing massive fish kills and deaths of manatees, dolphins and other marine animals and birds in the hundreds.

The current algae is not red tide.

Also testing the water in May was the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, a branch of the FWC.

Spokeswoman Kelly Richmond said volunteers sampled locations at the Rod & Reel Pier May 6 and School Key, known as Key Royale, May 1.

Results from the FWRI testing showed no harmful algal blooms, she said. Volunteers will continue sampling the water and may add other test locations.

Although the stench improved and no HABs were identified on Anna Maria Island the second week of May, some people living near the algal blooms expressed their disgust.

“Last week, after it sat in the sun, it was really strong. Like sewage. Even inside our house,” Holmes Beach resident Christine Wright said May 9.

Titsworth agreed, “People are hating it.”

She has asked Barney Salmon, the city director of development services, to research the outbreak.

“I firmly believe it comes from too much nutrients,” the mayor said, adding “It happens a lot.”

Reporting blooms

The DEP encourages the reporting of alga blooms to its hotline at 855-305-3903 or online.

Icon set to install T-end deck at Anna Maria City Pier

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An i+iconSOUTHEAST employee works May 9 on installing stringers and utility lines in the walkway of the new Anna Maria City Pier. Islander Photo: Ryan Paice
Icon employees haul generators to a staging area, the pavilion at the Anna Maria City Pier May 10, for construction of the pier walkway.

The new Anna Maria City Pier is taking shape.

Mayor Dan Murphy told city commissioners May 9 that i+iconSOUTHEAST finished installing pile bents — wood beams attached to each pair of walkway piles via concrete caps — earlier in the week.

Murphy said Icon will spend one-two weeks installing stringers, vertically set support planks laid the length of the walkway, as well as utility lines for communication, water, gas and electricity between the planks.

The utility lines will be secured to the stringers with stainless steel straps and covered with ipe wood decking once complete.

Murphy displayed a picture of the damaged old pier, remarking that the city dealt with frequent maintenance issues with the old utility lines because of movement due to tides.

Next, he showed a photo of the progress on the new walkway, with bents set and stringers and utility lines being laid.

The mayor said the new stainless steel straps would limit the movement of the utility lines, securing them from damage.

“It’s a vast improvement from where we were,” Murphy said.

Remaining materials, including the concrete decking for the T-end and ipe decking for the walkway, will be delivered to the Kingfish Boat Ramp in Holmes Beach in the next couple of weeks. From there, the materials will be loaded onto Icon’s barge.

After delivery and the setting of stringers and utility lines, Icon will install the concrete decking at the T-end.

Murphy said the work will involve setting large blocks of concrete and installing a junction box in the base of the decking for the restaurant and bait shop to use to access utility lines.

The city issued a request for proposals to construct the restaurant and bait shop at the T-end after Icon finishes constructing the walkway and T-end structure.

The city began building a new pier after tearing down the 106-year-old pier in 2018. The structure was destroyed by Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

The mayor said the concrete placement requires good weather and still waters because precision is needed to place the concrete from the barge-set crane. He couldn’t estimate how long the step would take.

The final stage of construction involves the installation of ipe decking along the walkway and on top of the concrete deck at the T-end.

BBPD arrests Bradenton woman for coin, jewelry thefts

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Rene Lee of Bradenton

Ten counts of pawning rare coins and jewelry valued at more than $80,000 landed a woman in Manatee County jail May 6.

Rene Lee of Bradenton was arrested at her residence in the 10600 block of Cortez Road West on five counts of dealing in stolen property and five counts of giving false information to a pawn broker.

She posted a $10,500 bond two days later and was released from jail.

Bradenton Beach Detective Sgt. Lenard Diaz said Lee stole and pawned vintage coins — silver dollars, half dollars and a 1964 proof set of dimes, nickels and pennies — and jewelry, including gold and diamond rings, earrings, necklaces and pendants.

The items were stolen from her former employer’s condo at Runaway Bay, 1801 Gulf Drive N., Bradenton Beach.

The owner reported the items missing in April.

The rare items, including “large bags of coins” and jewelry, have been difficult to value, “but the best we’ve been able to come up with is more than $80,000,” Diaz said.

Lee told police the rare items were given to her as gifts from her employer.

According to Diaz, Lee was given a key to the condo so she could clean the residence and her boyfriend could work there for a week.

By November 2018, “the defendant no longer had permission to be in her condo,” but items began to disappear, including $50,000 in rare coins taken from the victim’s safe.

The affidavit states Lee received $4,200 for the victim’s property at Maddog and Buccaneer Pawn in Bradenton in March and April. Only some of the victim’s property has been returned, Diaz said.

Lee’s arraignment is set for 9 a.m. Friday, June 7, at the Manatee County Judicial Center, 1051 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton.

Trial date set for final suspect in shark-dragging case

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Screenshots from the viral video of a shark-dragging that occurred near Egmont Key in June 2017 show the fishermen as they watched the shark being dragged behind their boat. Islander File Photo

A judge’s denial of defense motions sets the stage for a shark dragger’s trial.

Robert Lee Benac, 30, was in a courtroom in the 13th Circuit Court May 9 with attorney Justin Petredis, asking that his case be dismissed for lack of facts supporting a felony animal cruelty charge. Alternatively, they sought to sever the state’s prosecution of a misdemeanor charge for shooting a shark with a firearm.

Benac is the last defendant in the shark dragging case stemming from a video that appalled animal rights activists and state officials — up to the governor’s office — the summer of 2017.

Judge Mark Wolfe denied the defense motions during an hourlong hearing, according to public information officer Mike Moore. The judge confirmed a previously set June 24 trial and set a pretrial for June 18.

The case arose from the video showing the men laughing and dragging a shark off the back of a boat at high speed.

Benac, Michael Wenzel, Spencer Heintz and Nicholas Easterling, were on the boat and fishing near Egmont Key in June 2017, where other videos showed them spearing and shooting sharks.

Wenzel, the boat’s captain, pleaded guilty in February to a misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty and using an illegal method to catch a shark. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail, 11 months probation, including 100 hours of community service, and fined $2,500. Wenzel also lost his commercial fishing license for five years.

In May 2018, Wolfe dismissed charges against Heintz after prosecutors agreed his actions were not criminal.

Easterling, who grew up on Anna Maria Island and cooperated with authorities, was not charged.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission assisted in the investigation.

Former Gov. Rick Scott Gov. Rick Scott announced in 2018 letters to the FWC the state had zero tolerance for animal abuse.

Benac is the son of Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac.

Robert Benac’s pretrial is set for 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, June 18.

His trial is scheduled at 8:30 a.m., Monday, June, 24.

All proceedings will be held at 401 N. Jefferson St., Tampa.

The day the Skyway fell

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A tugboat pushes the Summit Venture from the wreckage after the May 9, 1980, crash into the Sunshine Skyway Bridge as a small boat in the center searches for survivors. Thirty-five people died. Islander Photo: Gene Page III
A Florida Highway Patrol officer helps secure the yellow Buick stopped at the edge of the mangled Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Driver Richard Hornbuckle of St. Petersburg stopped just shy of disaster that day, having walked back from the brink with his three passengers. Islander File Photo: Paul Roat
The view of the Skyway Bridge disaster scene unfolded from the top of the second span looking northwest toward the Summit Venture after it moved back from the bridge. Islander File Photo: Paul Roat
The Greyhound bus that plunged off the Skyway bridge May 9, 1980, is hauled up by a crane from Tampa Bay. Islander File Photo: Gene Page III
Shortly after the crash and the squall subsided, the Summit Venture anchored alongside the bridge with Skyway roadbed and girders on the bow and a crushed piling to its starboard. Islander File Photo: Gene Page III
An Eckerd College marine rescue team was first on the scene at the Skyway Bridge disaster and set about helping with recovery amid the wreckage. Islander File Photo: Paul Roat

‘The devil and the 
deep blue sea’

The bright, yellow suspension cables glint in the sun.

On a clear day, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge can be seen from Anna Maria Island.

Islanders also can see Egmont Key, off the northeast tip of Bean Point. Egmont is where Capt. John Lerro was sleeping in a beach cabin at the pilot station early May 8, 1980 — before his name would be tied to disaster.

Richard Hornbuckle was on a morning drive to Bradenton May 9, 1980, with three others for a golf game. In a rainstorm, he turned on his emergency flashers and moved to the right lane on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay between Pinellas and Manatee counties.

Hornbuckle was driving slowly when the road ahead of him dropped out of sight. He slammed his foot on the brake pedal, and his Buick slid to a halt 14 inches from the edge of the vanished roadway.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster was in motion — right before his eyes.

The men exited the car and walked back from the abyss, trying to comprehend what happened.

Hornbuckle, who died in 2000, and his passengers were some of the luckier ones that morning.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster remains one of Tampa Bay’s darkest events. Thirty-five people, including 26 passengers on a Greyhound bus bound for Miami and nine people in passenger cars, died.

The 609-foot long Summit Venture, piloted by 37-year-old Capt. John Eugene Lerro, had rammed the southbound span of the Skyway at 7:34 a.m.

The ship, eastbound to the Port of Tampa, was 800 feet to the right center of the Tampa Bay shipping channel. Lerro had lost sight of the bridge in a squall that came in off the Gulf of Mexico. He and he was struggling to keep control of the 35,000-ton ship in the wind and the rain.

He could not see the bow.

He could not see the bridge less than a mile away.

He ordered the ship to turn hard left and ordered the anchor dropped. But it was too late.

When the rain cleared moments before impact, he was unable to stop or steer the vessel clear of the span.

After the impact, the bridge shuddered and the cantilever construction flexed, taking down a quarter-mile of the southbound roadway, which fell from the main supporting pier to the other side of the span.

The first mayday call went out at 7:34 a.m. from the Summit Venture, according to skyway.com.

“Mayday! Coast Guard! Mayday! Bridge crossing is down!” Lerro yelled into the radio mic.

He and his crew watched as vehicles plunged into the bay. Some 1,297 feet of roadway fell into the water.

Wesley MacIntire, 56, a Gulfport truck driver, was in his 1974 Ford pickup when he realized the road was falling beneath him.

The World War II Navy veteran survived the fall — his truck fell with the roadway and crashed on the bow of the ship. The truck then bounced into the water. He fought his way out of the sinking truck and surfaced beside the Summit Venture and later said he feared being killed by the drifting ship at that point. The bow was covered with steel girders and twisted rebar.

A Summit Venture crewmember spotted MacIntire and hoisted him up on the deck.

MacIntire was the only survivor of the plunge off the Sunshine Skyway.

St. Petersburg firefighter Gerard Chalmers was among the first divers at the bridge collapse. He told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune he developed “bridge phobia” after the disaster.

Hornbuckle continued to travel between Pinellas and Manatee counties but always took a long way around, through Tampa, after the disaster.

A friend, Michael Gattus, said Hornbuckle became deathly ill the one time he tried to cross the Skyway again.


Wrong place, wrong time

The disaster was a perfect storm of Mother Nature coupled with human error.

The bridge spanned 15 miles linking Pinellas and Manatee.

The first span Skyway Bridge opened in 1954 with two lanes of traffic, replacing the Bee Line ferry between the counties.

In 1971, a twin parallel span was opened, carrying southbound traffic. The original span then carried the northbound traffic.

After the 1980 disaster, a new taller, cable-stayed bridge was constructed. It opened in 1987, with a clearance of 175 feet and a channel 1,200 feet wide — 400 feet wider than the channel at the time of the disaster.

Lerro was young and well respected in his profession when he piloted the ship into the bridge. He had piloted ships around the globe and was scheduled two days after the incident to receive a promotion to full-fledged harbor pilot.

The phosphate ship was empty — headed into the Port of Tampa to take on a load — when Lerro was engulfed by the squall that reduced visibility to zero.

Later, he testified in a hearing about the incident. He said he feared wind might push the Summit Venture into an oncoming ship if he tried to anchor. So, he chose to keep moving in the storm, not realizing the ship had moved out of the channel and away from under the high center of the bridge. It was too late when he ordered the turn and the anchor dropped.

After the disaster, Lerro’s pilot license was suspended — though it was later reinstated — and he was the subject of state and federal hearings.

In 1981, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He taught school in New York state for a semester in 1985, and then returned to Tampa Bay. He was divorced, suffered bouts of depression until he died in 2002 at 59.

“It was the storm and the wrong decision,” Lerro told a Los Angeles Times reporter after the incident. “The radar was out, the visuals were out. I ought to have put the ship aground. I was between the devil and the deep blue sea. That’s what I have to live with now.”


Today’s Skyway

The Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge that drivers traverse now is very different from the Skyway bridge the Summit Venture struck in 1980.

It has cables attached to towers to support the deck. The bridge is 4.14 miles long and the longest span in the construction is 1,200 feet. It has four lanes of traffic — two northbound and two southbound — and has a total height of 430 feet. Clearance for ships is 180.5 feet at mean-high tide.

The bridge opened April 20, 1987, and cost $244 million. During construction, the northbound lanes of the old Skyway — which were not damaged by the Summit Venture — were converted to carry traffic in both directions until the current bridge was finished.

The old bridge approaches were kept intact and make up the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park.

Wes MacIntire was the last person to drive over it the old remaining northbound lanes of the original bridge before it was demolished. Accompanied by his wife, they dropped 35 white carnations into the water at the top of the span, one flower for each person who died in May 1980.

The Islander, looking back on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster, used the following resources for this report: The Islander archives, skywaybridge.com, WGCU Southwest Florida, Wikipedia, the Tampa Bay Times, the Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times.