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State postpones vote on status of manatees

The decision upsets boating and fishing interests, who argue manatees should be listed as threatened, not endangered.

Published May 29, 2003

KISSIMMEE - State wildlife officials postponed a decision Wednesday on whether manatees are still an endangered species, frustrating boating and marine industry groups opposed to restrictions on Florida's waterways.

This summer the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will begin drawing up new regulations to slow down boaters in Tampa Bay. Those regulations likely will include new speed zones and no-entry areas throughout the bay and as far south as the Manatee River.

The regulations are part of a wave of new restrictions imposed by the state and federal government as a result of lawsuits filed by a coalition of environmental groups led by the Save the Manatee Club. The new restrictions have created a political backlash among boating and development groups, who now want state and federal officials to declare that the manatee is no longer endangered.

Those groups note that aerial surveys since 1990 have found more and more of the slow-moving marine mammals. Early surveys found no more than 1,500; a 2001 survey found more than 3,000.

"We think it's very important that this commission makes a strong statement that the manatee is not in trouble or we just think we're going to be crushed" by new regulations, said Ted Forsgren of the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, the recreational fishing organization that filed the petition urging the state to reclassify manatees.

But biologists say the aerial counts are not a dependable way to measure the population because manatees are so hard to see in the water and survey conditions vary widely from year to year. It is possible there were 3,000 manatees long before the 2001 count, said Gil McRae of the Florida Marine Research Institute.

Environmental groups contend that the threats to the manatee's future continue to increase. Last year 95 manatees were killed by speeding boats, a record. So far this year, the number killed by boats is about half what it was this time last year.

McRae's staff at the state marine lab produced a report in January that said manatees appear to be doing well enough that their status could be downgraded from endangered to threatened. But subsequent comments by other scientists, as well as a computer model by a federal scientist that suggests a less than rosy future, led him to tell commissioners that more time to study the situation would help.

So commissioners reluctantly put off the vote until November. The delay delighted environmental activists, who had urged a postponement because the state is also considering a rewrite of its rules for what constitutes an endangered species.

The angling and boating groups that had pushed to drop the endangered listing were not thrilled with the delay, but said they were willing to be patient.

[Last modified May 29, 2003, 02:00:42]

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