Not too long ago, Fish River wasn’t so much a destination for pleasure craft as it was a safe harbor. The deep, slow and meandering river is lined with hundreds of waterfront homes with wharfs or boat houses, but there is only a single commercial marina, a restaurant and two public boat launches along its almost 30-mile length.
As part of the Weeks Bay watershed and estuary, historically it was a hot spot for fishing and netting but was largely devoid of excessive boat traffic unless a tropical storm or hurricane threatened the bay. Then, boaters from along the coast would take shelter up the river to tie up between the banks and ride out the weather.
Today it looks a little different. As Baldwin County’s population has grown, Fish River has become a weekend destination not just for those who live there, but for many more residents from surrounding communities who seek to enjoy the water without competing against summer tourists and traffic to reach Gulf Shores or Orange Beach.
And they aren’t often on the low-powered or low-profile boats of yesteryear. Today’s boaters prefer jet-powered personal watercraft or frequently, multi-engine sportfishing yachts, center consoles and walkarounds.
With all the new traffic, fewer people go to Fish River to fish. Instead, more common activities are simply cruising, skiing, tubing or even racing. At the same time, there has been a marked increase in slow-moving kayakers and paddle boarders in recent years, and some residents think it’s a recipe for disaster.
A few weeks ago, the community was divided after a new, mile-long “no wake zone” was introduced there by state law enforcement, pitting supporters against opponents. The entire northern, narrow portion of the river has long been restricted to idle speed only, but the new zone extended it to wider areas farther south.
Opponents suggested the zone was established at the behest of nearby property owners who were concerned not about safety, but about the damage done to their bulkheads and shorelines by the constant wave action. Others complained about the extended period of time it would take to travel from the upper reaches of the river to areas where they could engage in higher speeds.
Capt. Matt Brooks of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s (ALEA) Marine Patrol Division said ALEA is responsible for establishing and enforcing the restrictive zones in the public waters of the state and he personally fielded dozens of calls and emails about the changes on Fish River in the past few weeks.
“Requests for restrictive zones can come from the general public or we can generate them ourselves,” he said. “When we do it, it’s based on an evaluation of the safety conditions, the type of waterway, the congestion, any accidents reported, complaints and observations.”
Whether requested by the public or an internal suggestion, proposed restrictive zones are vetted by ALEA’s chain of command before they are approved and implemented. Brooks said a patrol officer made the no wake zone suggestion for Fish River after a “very noticeable increase in boating traffic” earlier this year.
While the state does not use any particular device to count traffic on water like it does on roads, Brooks said his officers have reported increases in boat traffic statewide this year as a result of COVID-19 social distancing guidelines and restrictions, and it has presented a particular safety concern on Fish River.
“We normally see a pretty big increase in traffic in the spring, but this year we saw that in advance and it never slowed down,” he said. “People have fewer opportunities to go out and enjoy themselves and do things they are accustomed to, so they went to the water. On Fish River, traffic is compounded by the fact it is very narrow in places.”
Brooks added there have been no reported accidents on the river recently due to traffic, “but this is a case where we’re trying to be proactive and prevent something from happening.”
Still, after evaluating public complaints and even hearing concerns from the Baldwin County legislative delegation, ALEA decided last week to roll back its mile-long no wake zone in favor of two smaller zones on either end. But in the middle is a hairpin turn some local residents believe leaves a dangerous blind spot.
One couple who live near that section of the river said it had noting to do with the potential damage to their property but rather, the danger to life.
“What’s shocking to me is how I’ve watched it change, in particular the sheer volume of high-speed traffic,” one said. “Forty years ago it was not a big deal to go bombing down the river at 30 to 40 miles per hour because there was not much volume. Now you have 30- to 40-foot boats with [triple, 300-horsepower motors] going to pass each other and jet skis weaving in between trying to jump the wakes and it’s a miracle no one has been killed.”
The couple, who enjoy rowing on the river when it’s quiet, said they frequently witness boaters drinking while driving and some even “hold up their beer to say ‘hello’ as they pass by.” Other times speeding boats have narrowly missed kayakers or neighboring docks, and they will no longer sit on their dock on the weekend because it’s too dangerous.
Accidents have been reported on the river in recent years including a head-on collision after the Christmas boat parade in 2005 that took the life of volunteer firefighter Chelsea Garvin. During the week of the Fourth of July last year, ALEA reported 12 boating accidents statewide, leading to six deaths. In 2018, there were 75 boating accidents resulting in 17 deaths statewide, and in 2017, 86 boating accidents resulting in 19 deaths.
Updated numbers for 2020 were not available by press time, but Brooks said ALEA has issued 37 citations for violating restrictive signs or buoys in Mobile and Baldwin counties over the past two years, while also issuing 258 warnings. He said the state does not currently maintain a list or a map of all the restrictive zones statewide, but many are noted in the databases of modern GPS equipment.
As boaters hit the water this Independence Day, Brooks advises them to check and maintain all safety equipment, use designated drivers and “be courteous and cautious.” If anyone would like to weigh in on restrictive zones on Fish River or elsewhere, they are encouraged to contact ALEA.
“I tried to respond to everybody that emailed and talked to several people, and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “Our main interest is preventing accidents and saving lives and I think in this case we got it right.”
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