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Marine industry decries dock rules

The rules are unveiled the same day a deal creating new manatee protection zones is filed.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service implemented new rules Friday for the dock application process in Florida that marine industry groups think could threaten their way of life.

The regulations create a formal application process for people seeking to install docks. They were released in concert with an Interior Department agreement with environmental groups creating three new protection zones for manatees.

John Sprague, chairman of governmental affairs for the Marine Industries Association of Florida, said the new rules amount to a moratorium of at least a year on construction of all new docks.

"It's definitely an attack on the state of Florida, as far as the citizens having the ability to access the waters of the state," he said. "The outcome will have a huge impact on the economy of the industry. It will probably put the majority of marine contractors out of business."

The regulations require a biological assessment for any docks in an area that could adversely affect manatees. Fish and Wildlife will work with the Army Corps of Engineers to determine, among other things, the mortality rate of manatees in the area and the effects the installation of a new dock would have on them.

The federal agency took the action the same day Florida Gov. Jeb Bush met with Interior Secretary Gale Norton to press for fewer burdens on the state's boaters and marine industry.

Bush told Norton the new dock rules could cause great economic damage in southwest Florida, said Jill Bratina, Bush's spokeswoman. With the number of manatees steadily increasing, the governor said the state should be allowed to continue its success with law enforcement and boater education, rather than suffer further restrictions, she said.

"We agreed that we would continue discussions," Bratina said.

A record 95 manatees died in Florida last year after being struck by watercraft.

As part of its agreement with environmental groups, the Interior Department agreed to create three additional protection areas for manatees, where powerboats will either be banned or have to abide by new speed limits. In exchange, the groups agreed to drop contempt-of-court proceedings against Norton.

The zones will be in the Caloosahatchee River in Lee County, the St. Johns River in Duval and Clay counties, and the Halifax and Tomoka rivers in Volusia County.

The agreement also establishes timelines for erecting signs to alert boaters of manatee protection areas, and Fish and Wildlife said it will "significantly increase the presence of federal law enforcement officers on the water to ensure boater compliance." The agreement also will require the National Park Service to strengthen manatee protection efforts in parks in Florida.

Environmentalists cheered the plan. "If implemented in good faith, (it) will provide much-needed protection for endangered manatees in three areas of Florida where manatees have been killed and injured in high numbers," the environmental coalition said in a statement.

In January 2001, environmentalists and Interior agreed on refuges and sanctuaries for manatees, but after the department missed two deadlines to enact rules, the coalition filed contempt charges.

U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan still needs to approve the agreement, and will hold a hearing next month to consider objections. Marine industry groups are weighing their options, Sprague said.

Meanwhile, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is considering reducing the manatee's protection status from endangered to threatened.

-- Information from Scripps Howard News Service, Knight Ridder Newspapers and the Associated Press was used in this report.

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