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Manatee refuge list dismays both sides

Manatee advocates say the new U.S. list won't satisfy a judge. Boaters complain that it further crimps their activities.

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 2, 2002

Manatee advocates say the new U.S. list won't satisfy a judge. Boaters complain that it further crimps their activities.

Infuriating boaters and manatee advocates alike, federal officials Friday issued a new list of areas around Florida where human activities will be limited or prohibited to protect the endangered mammal.

The list, which includes areas around Tampa Bay and Citrus County, was produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under orders from a federal judge who had threatened to hold Interior Secretary Gale Norton in contempt.

Manatee advocates predicted the list probably won't satisfy the judge, who is scheduled to review the case at a hearing Tuesday, because it fails to include locations where the most manatees have been killed or maimed by speeding boats: the Caloosahatchee River in Lee County; the St. Johns River in Duval County; and the Halifax River in Volusia County.

"They studiously avoided all the areas that are the worst," said Eric Glitzenstein, attorney for the Save the Manatee Club and other environmental groups in a lawsuit against the federal agency.

Instead the list largely mirrors one previously approved by the state's wildlife agency in setting up speed limits in counties around the state.

In the areas around Tampa Bay and in Citrus County where the federal agency previously proposed establishing refuges and sanctuaries for manatees, agency officials decided to shrink the boundaries considerably to match restrictions already posted by local and state agencies.

For instance, around the Florida Power plant at Weedon Island, federal officials originally proposed a 181-acre manatee sanctuary. The new list shrinks the area to less than 30 acres.

The list also irritated boaters who oppose the tightening of government restrictions. Ron Pritchard of Citizens for Florida's Waterways called it "an infringement on family boating."

Pritchard said the federal agency failed to live up to an agreement with the Save the Manatee Club to prepare a comprehensive list of places where manatees need protection. "That seems to me to be an underhanded way to do business," Pritchard said.

Agency spokesman Chuck Underwood said federal officials had to stick to areas where they held public hearings. More areas can be suggested, he said.

A record 85 manatees have been killed by boats this year.

Around Tampa Bay, where comparatively few manatees have been hit, areas near three power plants would be off limits to boaters, swimmers, divers and anglers from Nov. 15 to March 31.

During that time, boats would be limited to slow or idle speeds in the areas adjacent to Tampa Bay's three power plants -- in Tampa, Apollo Beach and Weedon Island -- to spare manatees from being harassed, hurt or killed.

The headwaters of the Homosassa River in Citrus known as Blue Waters would be off limits to all forms of human activity during the same period.

Federal officials originally proposed marking off about 4 acres of Blue Waters as a manatee sanctuary, but have shrunk it to about 1.6 acres. Near Tampa Electric Co.'s Big Bend plant in Apollo Beach, the agency originally proposed a 76-acre sanctuary, but reduced it to 30 acres.

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