Tag Archives: Wildlife

Last of 4 men in shark-dragging case takes plea deal

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Screenshots from the viral video of a shark-dragging that occurred near Egmont Key in June 2017 show three of the four men as they watched the shark being dragged behind the boat. Islander File Photos
Robert “Bo” Benac

By Kathy Prucnell and ChrisAnn Silver Esformes, Islander Reporters

The shark-dragging case that entangled four men in cries of animal cruelty for months on social media has concluded.

“The Benac case is over,” said Mike Moore, 13th Judicial Circuit Court public information officer, after the last of the three defendants charged for the June 2017 shark dragging near Egmont Key reached a plea deal.

With a court-sanctioned agreement, Robert “Bo” Benac of Bradenton was sentenced Sept. 12 to 11 months probation, 10 days in jail, $2,500 fine, 250 hours of community service — half with an animal shelter — and a three-year revocation of his fishing license, according to Moore. Benac also received credit for one day served in jail after his December 2017 arrest.

Benac’s case stems from videos posted on social media showing him with three other men, Burns Easterling, Spencer Heintz and Michael Wenzel on a June 26, 2017, fishing trip in the waters north of Anna Maria Island.

One video shows the men laughing as the shark was dragged off the back of their speeding boat. Other videos showed them spearing and shooting sharks with guns.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the state attorney offices in Hillsborough and Manatee counties spent six months investigating before filing the charges against three of the men, as public outrage on social media swelled to the governor’s office.

“He’ll start at 3 p.m. Friday,” Moore said, referring to Benac’s time in the Hillsborough County jail.

According to Moore, the felony aggravated animal cruelty charge levied for shooting a bull shark was reduced to a lesser charge and the same charge for the incident involving a blacktip shark — the dragging behind the fishing boat — was dropped.

A misdemeanor charge for violating an FWC rule that restricts methods of taking wildlife also was reduced for Benac, Moore said.

He is the son of Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac.

Wenzel, the boat’s captain, pleaded guilty in February to animal cruelty and use of an illegal method to catch a shark. He was fined $2,733.27 and sentenced to 10 days in jail and 11 months probation, including 100 hours of community service. Wenzel also lost his fishing license for five years.

Charges against Heintz were dropped by the state in May 2018 after prosecutors agreed his actions were not criminal.

Easterling cooperated with authorities and was not charged.

Annual blooms, one-night extravaganza

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About 100 buds opened overnight Sept. 10 on this night-blooming cereus cactus in a yard near the intersection of Cordova Drive and Manatee Avenue in Palma Sola Park. The tropical species usually blooms one night a year and the flowers wilt by noon the next day. Islander Photos: ChrisAnn Silver Esformes
Bees buzz the large, yellowish-white blossoms Sept. 10 on a night-blooming cereus cactus. Islander Photos: ChrisAnn Silver Esformes

Bortie Too update: Cruising Bahama, Cuba waters

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A Sept. 5 screenshot from conserveturtles.org shows the track taken south through the Gulf of Mexico by loggerhead Bortie Too.

A sea turtle that nested on Anna Maria Island continues to be tracked on its migration.

Named Bortie Too for sponsor Bortell’s Lounge, the loggerhead was tagged and released by Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring and the Sea Turtle Conservancy after nesting June 21 on Cortez Beach in Bradenton Beach, as part of the STC’s 12th annual Tour de Turtles.

Since then, the loggerhead has nested a second time on the beach in Holmes Beach and has traveled 674 miles to the seagrass beds between the Bahamas and Cuba to feed and gain strength.

AMITW’s sea turtle was in third place in the Tour de Turtles as of Sept. 5.

The tagged turtles are competing in a “marathon” that started Aug. 1 and ends Nov. 1 — a contest to see which turtle swims the farthest during a three-month survey.

Data received from the satellite tag helps marine biologists track and survey sea turtle migration behavior.

To track Bortie Too, visit: conserveturtles.org/sea-turtle-tracking-active-sea-turtles/

Record-breaking season

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Observers on the beach Sept. 3 watch volunteer Kathy Doddridge count loggerhead eggs from a nest that hatched Aug. 31 near the 2200 block of Gulf Drive South, Bradenton Beach, as volunteer Kim Rickards measures the nest cavity with a yardstick. The nest contained one unhatched and 46 hatched eggs. Islander Photo: ChrisAnn Silver Esformes

Loggerhead nesting is crawling to the finish line on Anna Maria Island.

And turtle watch is reporting another record-breaking season.

As of Sept. 6, 126 nests were waiting to hatch on the island out of 535 laid since May 1, and an estimated 21,553 hatchlings have made their way to the Gulf of Mexico.

In 2018, AMITW broke the 2017 record with 534 nests.

In August, Mote Marine Laboratory reported a record-breaking 1,326 nests on Longboat Key, with 5,063 total in the Sarasota area, including beaches on Venice, Siesta, Casey and Lido keys.

Sea turtle nesting and hatching season officially ends Oct. 31 on the island.

Until then, AMITW volunteers walk the beach each morning looking for new nests and the tiny tell-tale tracks in the sand leading from nests to the water, indicating hatched nests.

When a nest hatches, turtle watch waits 72 hours to excavate and collect data.

AMITW digs into a sea turtle nest to report data on how many eggs hatched. If there are live hatchlings, they will be released to the Gulf and any dead hatchlings or unhatched eggs are tallied.

Often, the hatchlings at the bottom of the nest are the weakest in the clutch, according to Suzi Fox, AMITW executive director.

Turtle watch and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission agree they should be given a chance to survive.

“Any time a hatchling can have at least 20 minutes of life in the ocean, we want to give them that,” Fox said Sept. 6. “If they don’t make it, that’s just part of the natural order of prey and predator.”

As season marches on, hatch rates slow, Fox added.

She said nests that hatch later in season often are the second or third nest laid by the female, and they can contain fewer than the usual 90-100 eggs.

Additionally, the longer eggs incubate in the sand, the more they are exposed to standing water from rain and high tides, which can drown embryos.

However, Fox said the hatch rate was strong at the beginning of season, and hatchlings are still emerging.

“We’re having another fantastic season with strong numbers,” Fox said.

“Hatch rates slow at the end of season, but we’ve still got almost two months left for the little ones to hatch and head out to sea.”

Fourth Anna Maria seat opens as election qualifying ends

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Vice Mayor Brian Seymour

A fourth city commission seat opened in Anna Maria, but it won’t be filled in the city election.

In fact, there will be no city election.

At the 11th hour for candidate qualifying for the Nov. 5 city election ballot, Vice Mayor Brian Seymour resigned his seat on the commission.

Seymour had a year remaining on his term and was not up for re-election in November.

There already was low interest for the three commission seats with terms ending in November.

Only one new candidate qualified to run by the Aug. 30 deadline, leaving two incumbents unchallenged.

Candidate Jonathan Crane, the current chair of the city’s planning and zoning board, will fill the seat held by Doug Copeland, who declined to run for another term.

Commissioners Carol Carter and Dale Woodland automatically retain their seats for another two years.

Seymour resigned the morning of Aug. 30.

“It is with regret that I tender my resignation as City Commission Chairman/Vice Mayor effective immediately,” he wrote in his resignation letter to Mayor Dan Murphy.

“I have learned a tremendous amount over the last three years from (Murphy) personally, especially the last year being the chairman of the commission, and I offer my best wishes for its continued success.

“It is time for me to return and focus on my private life and private business ventures.”

Murphy said Seymour’s seat would be filled through appointment, just as Commissioner Amy Tripp was appointed to complete the remainder of Commissioner Nancy Yetter’s term in February 2018.

The mayor said he would address the matter at a future meeting.

“I was shocked (regarding Seymour’s resignation),” Woodland said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

Carter will begin her fourth two-year term as city commissioner in November.

“I’m pleased to retain the seat,” Carter said in an Aug. 30 interview with The Islander. “I think the fact that other people hadn’t come forward means that most people have some confidence in what we as a commission has been doing and what we’re accomplishing, so that makes me feel good, too.”

Woodland will enter his eighth two-year term as commissioner.

“Obviously, I love doing the job,” Woodland said in an Aug. 30 interview with The Islander. “I think the most important thing, from my perspective, is that I am not a politician. I’m a public servant.”

“I’m never going to change that, since that, to me, is the only good thing to do if you’re involved in government,” he continued.

Crane will serve his first term as commissioner after the swearing-in of officials in November.

“I am very pleased to make it on the commission,” Crane said. He continued that he loves his role on the zoning board and believes the experience will help him as a commissioner, but “I won’t really know until I sit on the commission for a little while.”

“I’ve enjoyed serving with him,” Carter said of Seymour. “I think he has conducted the meetings of the commission as chair adequately, and I’m sure he’ll continue to be a very active member of our community.”

Commissioners earn $4,800 a year, and the election assessment fee was $48 for a commission seat.

Anna Maria had 1,076 active voters as of Aug. 30, according to the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Office.

AME to lose teacher to low student enrollment

Six hatchlings, discovered Aug. 29 during a loggerhead nest excavation on the beach in Bradenton Beach, scamper to the Gulf of Mexico.
Turtle watch volunteer Lee Zerkel holds a loggerhead hatchling found Aug. 29 during a nest excavation on the beach in Bradenton Beach. The hatchling was one of seven remaining after the nest hatched.
Amy Manning of Bradenton compares the hatchling tattoo on her foot Aug. 29 with a live hatchling found during a nest excavation in Bradenton Beach. The hatchling was released to the Gulf.

Due to low enrollment for 2019-20, Anna Maria Elementary will lose a teacher.

The teacher with the least seniority will be expected to transfer unless another teacher comes forward to step down.

Meetings will be held and a decision will be made by Sept. 5.

“For over five years now our enrollment has been in the 200s, with 54% of those students either using school choice or a hardship to be able to attend school here,” principal Jackie Featherston said Aug. 28.

She said AME is the smallest elementary school in the Manatee County School District, with 222 students.

The number is not expected to grow.

Enrollment has decreased slowly, “as housing costs go up” and fewer families can afford to live on Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key, she said.

“I am told enrollment was in the low 400s before the school was rebuilt and we had many more families on the island,” said Featherston.

The loss of an AME teacher will be sad for staff and students, but also for such parents as Mauri Zaccagnino, who has third- and fourth-grade students at AME.

“One of the best things about AME are the small class sizes and consistent, excellent teachers,” said Zaccagnino. “I will be sorry to have to say goodbye to one of those teachers who has very likely impacted the lives of my children in a positive way.”

AME parent Jeff Canup. whose children are in first- and third-grade, offered a different perspective.

“Anna Maria Elementary’s decreased enrollment enhances its advantages as a small school where students develop close-knit relationships and the administration has the bandwidth to address student needs and parent concerns,” he said.

Anna Maria foregoes pier work to prep for Dorian

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Plastic bags cover light posts Aug. 29 at the Anna Maria City Pier, in preparation for the effects of Hurricane Dorian. Islander Photo: Kathy Prucnell
I+con SOUTHEAST workers clean up the staging area Aug. 29 at the Anna Maria City Pier to prepare for possible weather impacts the weekend of Sept. 2.

Anna Maria enacted a hurricane preparedness plan Aug. 30 for the $5.9 million pier in progress before Hurricane Dorian hit Florida.

With Dorian poised to hit the state Sept. 3 — or move north — Murphy said in an Aug. 30 email the pier restaurant start date is delayed without “a new date set as of yet.”

Sept. 1 was the start date for a $967,000 contract with Mason Martin of Holmes Beach to construct the buildings.

Paul Johnson of I+conSOUTHEAST, the city’s contractor for the pier pilings, walkway and T-end, emailed Mayor Dan Murphy Aug. 29 about his plans to secure the pier work-in-progress, including:

• Removing plywood from the pier, stacking it in the yard and strapping it down.
• Removing loose items from the pier and pavilion.
• Removing two floats and securing them in the yard.
• Bundling and securing all Ipe decking.
• Securing the conex box, dumpster, portable toilets and the construction trailer.
• Relocating tool trailers off-island.

I+con contracted with the city in November 2018 to remove the old pier and construct the new pier after Hurricane Irma damaged it in September 2017.

The new pier is funded by the city, state and Federal Emergency Management Agency and Manatee County tourist development dollars.

Plans for the T-end improvements — the restaurant, bait shop and restrooms — await completion of the decking.

Dorian prompts turtle watch storm preparations

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Turtle watch volunteer Lee Zerkel counts the remainders of loggerhead eggs Aug. 29 from a nest that hatched after sunset Aug. 25 on the beach behind the Anna Maria Island Moose Lodge, 110 Gulf Drive S., Bradenton Beach. Zerkel found 100 hatched eggs, three unhatched eggs, six dead hatchlings and seven live hatchlings, which were released to the Gulf of Mexico. Islander Photos: ChrisAnn Silver Esformes
Six hatchlings, discovered Aug. 29 during a loggerhead nest excavation on the beach in Bradenton Beach, scamper to the Gulf of Mexico.
Turtle watch volunteer Lee Zerkel holds a loggerhead hatchling found Aug. 29 during a nest excavation on the beach in Bradenton Beach. The hatchling was one of seven remaining after the nest hatched.
Amy Manning of Bradenton compares the hatchling tattoo on her foot Aug. 29 with a live hatchling found during a nest excavation in Bradenton Beach. The hatchling was released to the Gulf.

Turtle watch wasn’t taking chances.

As people started preparing for Hurricane Dorian to bear down on the East Coast, Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring was doing the same.

Preparation included pounding stakes that mark nests deeper into the sand so they would be less likely to wash away in rain and high surf and removing nest adoption plaques until after the storm, according to Suzi Fox, AMITW executive director.

At this point in the season, loggerhead nesting has all but stopped, but green sea turtles, which usually nest later in the season and are uncommon for Anna Maria, are still active.

Turtle watch documented nine green turtle nests as of Aug. 30 — a new record for the island.

With 161 nests remaining on the island out of 533 laid since May 1, Fox was hopeful the unhatched nests would survive the storm, which was churning northward in the Atlantic Ocean Sept. 2, as The Islander went to press.

When a powerful storm causes increased rainfall, higher than normal tides and surf, some sea turtle nests can be washed over and embryos might not survive.

Sea turtle eggs absorb water and hatchlings can drown before they emerge.

However, according to Fox, many of the nests still on the beach could hatch earlier than anticipated.

“When low pressure moves over an area, there’s a tendency for the nests to hatch sooner,” she said. “The nests that make it through the storm also could hatch just after it passes.”

When a nest hatches, turtle watch waits 72 hours to collect data.

AMITW excavates — digs into — a sea turtle nest to determine how many eggs have hatched. If there are live hatchlings they will be released to the Gulf and any dead hatchlings or unhatched eggs also are counted.

The safety of AMITW volunteers during a storm is the most important factor, Fox said.

According to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regulations, volunteers are relieved of beach surveys and excavations until the storm passes.

As of Aug. 29, nests were hatching nightly and volunteers were collecting data daily.

Fox hopes to see a hefty hatch rate by Oct. 31, the end of sea turtle nesting season.

“It’s been a great season so far, with excellent hatch rates,” Fox said. “Hopefully the storm won’t have too much of an effect on our overall numbers.”

Preparing for the worst, hoping for the best

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Walter Kramer, an employee of AMI Health and Fitness of Holmes Beach, bags sand Aug. 29 for his residence, as well as the business, in the Holmes Beach city hall parking lot, 5801 Marina Drive, in preparation for Hurricane Dorian. The slow-moving storm was aimed at the East Coast, and most people, including some West Coast emergency managers, stood down over Labor Day weekend. Islander Photo: Kathy Prucnell

Dead bird tests to come, swim advisory lifted for Palma Sola

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A horseriding attraction operates on the north side of Palma Sola Bay Manatee Avenue. Horses are permitted on the state-owned right of way, where the city of Bradenton lacks regulations. Islander Photos: Kathy Prucnell
An advisory was lifted for the south side of the Palma Sola Causeway and beachgoers enjoyed the waters Aug. 28.

Dead birds are drawing the attention of wildlife professionals.

In July and August, wildlife rescuer Jeanette Edwards gathered nine ailing and 10 dead birds — including ibises, egrets, pelicans and herons — from a Palma Sola Bay rookery and delivered them for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission tests.

Results showed one ibis died of salmonella.

Necropsies on an egret and another ibis were pending, with results not expected for at least a month, FWC communications director Kelly Richmond said in an Aug. 29 email.

Salmonella can be contracted by consuming food contaminated by animal feces and, according to Richmond, “is not an uncommon cause of death in young birds.”

Edwards, however, considers the number of dead and sick birds in the past two months, as reported Aug. 28 in The Islander, “very scary,” considering her rescue trajectory from 2018 during the red tide when she found 40 impacted birds and 11 birds died.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, a research arm of the, is also on it.

“We have received similar reports and are working with our avian veterinarian staff to get more information,” FWRI public information specialist Michelle Kerr said Aug. 29 in an email.

Charlie Hunsicker, Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources director, called Edwards’ findings in Palma Sola Bay “unusual” and remarked on the high number.

Whatever caused the birds to get sick hasn’t spread to the nearby county-owned Robinson or Perico preserves, however.

Hunsicker said the illness could be a colony disease — contracted by birds living in close proximity.

Meanwhile, the county’s arm of the Florida Department of Health has given the all-clear signal following two no-swim advisories July 17 and Aug. 15. The affected beach access is on the south side of Manatee Avenue West about 1,000 feet west of 81st Street.

“I know it has to do with feces in the water,” Edwards speculated Aug. 28.

Edwards said the bird deaths connect to fecal matter in Palma Sola Bay because she found birds in the past two months “right after” the two no-swimming advisories went into effect. In July, she found six birds dead and rescued nine. She collected four dead birds Aug. 6-16.

While the health department’s testing Aug. 19 and Aug. 26 for enterococci — an indicator for fecal matter — came back within the state and federal safe swimming guidelines, high elevations of the bacteria were present the weeks of July 8 and Aug. 12.

In July, tests showed 24,196 and 422 colony-forming units of enterococci in 100 milliliters of water. In August, 767 and 96 colony-forming units were in the sample water.

The threshold is 70.05 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters of water sample. Colony-forming refers to bacteria likely to reproduce.

What could have caused the pollution?

Fecal matter can spill into the bay through sewer-line breaks, leaching septic systems, lift station failures and stormwater runoff.

In addition to the health department and the FWC, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is charged with oversight of Palma Sola Bay as part of the Sarasota Bay Estuarine System, a Florida Outstanding Water body.

The DEP monitors the waters to ensure discharges are stopped “as quickly as possible” and to determine corrective actions, spokeswoman Shannon Herbon said in an Aug. 22 email.

Specific to Palma Sola Bay, she said there were no known discharges of sewage in the July-August time frame.

“It’s possible the beach closure was due to fecal coliform from animals,” Herbon added.

As far as sewage spills into Palma Sola Bay, the last recorded spills occurred December 2017-February 2018, when contractors hit sewer lines and more than 6 million gallons of raw sewage spewed through adjacent land into the bay.

At a recent Manatee County Council of Governments meeting, in addition to a possible sewage waste issue, Commissioner Carol Whitmore and Bradenton Councilman Gene Gallo blamed dogs and horses allowed to frequent the bay waters.

The latest significant spill in Palma Sola Bay came from reclaimed water, according to the DEP and Manatee County Utilities Department.

Some 180,000 gallons of treated wastewater was discharged at 3 p.m. Aug. 19 into a storm drain on 59th Street West that flows south and eventually to Palma Sola Bay. MCUD staff stopped the discharge by 6 p.m., determining that Metro Equipment Service Inc. hit a 16-inch reclaimed water main, according to reports.

The reclaimed water is treated “almost to the drinking water standard. … with a little more nitrogen,” said MCUD spokeswoman Amy Pilson but, she added, “We wouldn’t recommend anyone drink it.”

Hunsicker was not happy to hear about the reclaimed water spill into Palma Sola Bay.

“We’re upset about that,” Hunsicker said, adding significant nitrogen releases are being emitted from Sarasota County’s Bee Ridge facility.

“Nobody is talking about those millions of gallons of nitrogen going into Sarasota Bay. We’re not hearing a single word about it because it is reclaimed,” he said, referring to a lack of public complaints.

Ed Straight of Wildlife Inc. said Aug. 28 the Bradenton Beach rescue is caring for two sick pelicans and two laughing gulls, but he believes their illnesses were natural.


Anna Maria park hit with no-swim advisory

A Bayfront Park beach was under a no-swim advisory.

The Florida Department of Health in Manatee County issued the warning Aug. 30 for waters located at the north end of the park at 316 N. Bay Blvd., Anna Maria.

Test results from Aug. 26 and Aug. 28 show elevated levels of enterococci bacteria — an indicator for fecal matter—from water samples taken near the beach, according to DOH advisory.

Water contact poses an increased risk of rashes and infectious disease when the enterococci levels exceed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 70.05 colony-forming unit standard.

Manatee County health officials conduct weekly testing under a DOH Healthy Beaches Monitoring Program for seven Anna Maria Island beaches.

The advisory will remain in effect until tests results meet the EPA guidelines.

For more information, go online to the DOH website at www.floridahealth.gov and select environmental health and beach water quality tabs or call 941-714-7593.