Florida is renowned for its spectacular bird life. People travel from around the world to observe birds in Florida, and Lee County is a prime destination for seeing pelicans, reddish egrets and tricolored herons. Lee County has a special place in Florida's history of bird conservation. Three National Wildlife Refuges were established here by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 and the J.N. Ding Darling Refuge was established in 1976. Despite this and numerous important conservation efforts, the future for many Florida bird species is in question.
This year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission undertook a statewide effort to identify areas where significant bird concentrations were subject to human-caused disturbance and where Critical Wildlife Areas could be established to provide needed conservation, particularly for our threatened species. CWAs are a particularly effective and efficient conservation tool, designed to protect congregations of wildlife from disturbance during critical life stages such as breeding, feeding or migration. They are places where we can achieve the greatest amount of protection with the smallest amount of impact on people who recreate in these areas.
For nesting birds, CWAs are lifesaving. There is scientific documentation that human-caused disturbance interferes with successful breeding, roosting and feeding of wading and shore birds. People often don't intend to harm the birds, but when you approach too closely in a boat or on foot, even if you are moving slowly and quietly, most nesting birds will flush off their nests. This can have disastrous impact, resulting in broken eggs, or exposing the eggs or chicks to the sun or predators. The simple step of creating a posted buffer so people do not get too close can significantly improve breeding success for these species.
In Lee County, while there are hundreds of islands that have nesting, only the most productive areas are proposed for protection. In Pine Island Sound the top three nest sites are Broken Islands, Useppa Oyster Bar and Hemp Key. In Estero Bay the top sites are Matanzas Pass, M-52 and Coconut Point East. The total acreage proposed includes about 28 acres of land and 39 acres of water. The water buffers proposed for protection account for less than 1/10 of one percent of the waterways in Lee County. CWAs represent a tiny pinprick of protection in a sea of opportunity.
The FWC is a steadfast supporter and promoter of angling and boating access. Florida truly is the fishing capital of the world and we continually demonstrate our commitment to that. We dedicate a significant portion of agency resources to ensure access to Florida waters is maintained and improved and that people have safe, enjoyable experiences. Accordingly, based on the input we received during the public comment process, staff listened and altered some of the proposed CWAs in Lee County to lessen the impact the buffer zones will have on recreational activity.
As a commissioner, it's an easy call to support a proposal that will protect 36 percent of the birds on our threatened list for a fraction of a fraction of one percent of available waterways. This is high octane wildlife conservation for a minimal area of impact. All who love wild Florida - not just bird enthusiasts, but sportsmen, anglers, photographers, paddlers and recreational boaters can embrace this effort.
While you will find hundreds, if not thousands, of islands in Florida with birds, only a few have the right combination of factors that draw in large concentrations of birds. The plan to create the CWAs is a common sense proposal based on sound science. Florida's wildlife, and particularly bird life, deserves the chance to simply have a safe place to raise their young. It is our responsibility to protect these unique areas so future generations can enjoy Florida's signature bird species.
Brian Yablonski is the chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.