Water rights: Florida boaters vs. manatees

Federal and state officials promise stricter restrictions on motorboats.

Florida is bracing for yet another knock-down, drag-out statewide battle with national implications.

In November and December, it was over the right to vote.

In February and March, it will be over the right to boat.

At issue is the prospect of more expansive regulations to protect the state's endangered manatee population, rules that could render new sections of Florida's waterways off limits to motorboats.

Although formal proposals have not been made yet, many of the state's 830,000 registered boaters are worried about expanded slow-speed zones, motorboat bans, and tougher permit requirements for waterfront development such as piers and boat slips. Some are preparing to protest during public hearings expected in the next two months.

Opponents of new regulations say they favor protecting manatees, but they want to see scientific data demonstrating a specific need for each new measure. Some even question whether manatees still qualify as an endangered species.

"How are [federal and state regulators] coming up with the decision to close more of our waterways and regulate more of our lives when they don't have the data to support that action?" asks Ron Pritchard, president of Citizens for Florida's Waterways. "The science doesn't support the action."

Environmental activists disagree. They say a combination of manatee mortality data and tracking reports have enabled researchers to identify critical areas where manatees are in danger and would benefit from new safeguards.

"These manatees migrate up and down the coast and they need these safe havens along their migration routes," says Patti Thompson, a staff biologist with the Save the Manatee Club. "The manatees know where there are areas where boats don't go, so they know they are safe," she says.

The new rules were prompted by two federal lawsuits filed last year by a coalition of environmental groups, including the Save the Manatee Club. The suits charge that the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission were ignoring provisions of federal endangered species laws that required them to take a more proactive approach to manatee protection.

Both suits were settled last month. Under the terms of the negotiated settlement agreements the agencies are required to establish a statewide network of manatee safe havens - including closing some areas to motorboat traffic. The agreements also call for expanded enforcement of slow-speed zones to prevent boat collisions with slow-moving manatees.

And the settlement in one suit requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to adopt new regulations that will bar all proposed waterfront development projects that have anything more than a "negligible" effect on a local manatee population.

The settlements are being hailed by environmental groups as a major step toward ensuring the long-term survival of manatees in Florida.

In early January, researchers counted 3,276 manatees in Florida waters, the most since such aerial surveys have been conducted. But researchers also cautioned that prolonged cold in January may have proved fatal to a significant number of manatees. In addition, roughly 60 to 100 manatees die each year as a result of collisions with commercial and recreational watercraft.

Ms. Thompson says manatee populations are stable or increasing in two areas of the state, Crystal River on the west coast and the St. Johns River on the east. But she says the jury is still out on the status of manatee populations along Florida's southwest and east coasts.

Ground zero in the regulations battle is Brevard County and the waters surrounding the Kennedy Space Center. It is an area famous for its sport fishing, but it is also an area of high manatee mortality.

Environmental activists say the mortality rate justifies stricter regulations aimed at recreational boaters. But some local boaters insist that 60 percent of manatee deaths in the county are caused by commercial barges and tugboats delivering fuel oil to a riverside power plant.

The plant produces a steady outflow of warm water that attracts the manatees in cold weather. At the same time, the barges travel through what has become a prime manatee habitat.

"We know what kills most of the manatee in this area: the fuel barges," says Stowell Robertson, executive director of the Indian River Guides Association, a group of sport-fishing guides. "If anyone knows where these animals go, it is going to be the guides, the people who are out on the water every day."

Mr. Robertson says his members want to help protect the manatees. But they believe existing regulations are ineffective and that adding more won't help the sea cow.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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