Gov. Bush may be urged to veto the bill because it could cause federal officials to take over protection of the creatures.
By CRAIG PITTMAN and JONI JAMES
Published April 30, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - A bill backed by boater groups angling to block new manatee protection measures is likely to pass the Legislature today, despite concerns by Gov. Jeb Bush's top environmental adviser.
Two days after the Senate voted 32-7 for the measure (SB 540) amid jokes about how tasty manatees are, the House tentatively approved it Thursday and is expected to send the bill to Bush today.
Colleen Castille, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said she may recommend that Bush veto it. Her concern: A federal official says limiting the state's ability to impose new manatee regulations could prompt the federal government to take the job.
The bill says the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission should set measurable biological goals for the four population groups of manatees. When the population in that group meets the goal for that area, the wildlife commissioners would "give great weight" to the assumption that no new regulations are needed.
"Once you achieve it, there should be a reward for everybody involved, not more regulation," said Ted Forsgren, executive director of the sport-fishing group Coastal Conservation Association-Florida, which proposed the language.
But U.S. Marine Mammal Commission chairman John Reynolds predicts that because the bill would block the state from giving manatees the kind of protection from harm required under federal law, that would likely lead to federal wildlife officials' taking the job of manatee protection away from state officials.
The bill also says state wildlife commissioners are supposed to "maximize" boating opportunities even while protecting manatees - two goals that Pat Rose, lobbyist for the Save the Manatee Club, said are so contradictory they invite a legal challenge to any regulation by a disgruntled boater.
Federal rules are even less popular with boaters than the state's manatee protection rules, because the federal rules are usually adopted with less public input and carry more expensive penalties.
"Right now the federal government is holding hands with us and letting us take the lead," Castille said Thursday. "It would be worse for boaters if that was to change."
The fight over the manatee bill is the biggest environmental issue this session, with allegations from both sides of behind-the-scenes arm-twisting and maneuvering.
"This is some of the worst politics I've ever seen," declared Rose, who has threatened "a big veto battle."
The sponsors are lawmakers with ties to the development industry: Rep. Lindsay Harrington, R-Punta Gorda, a real estate broker, and Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, an electrical contractor.
Developers, dock builders and boaters are outraged by tightened restrictions on boating and waterfront development the past three years because of a pair of federal lawsuits, filed by environmental and animal welfare groups led by the Save the Manatee Club.
The environmental groups pursued those lawsuits because they believed state and federal officials had failed to stem the rising tide of boat-related manatee deaths, the largest single cause of death.
Boat deaths of manatees hit a record of 95 in 2002, but dropped last year to 73, the lowest level in five years.
But aerial surveys of the manatees' regular winter gathering spots have counted more than 3,000 of the animals. That has led boating advocates to argue that the population no longer needs so much protection.
Scientists split Florida's manatee population into four distinct groups, with about 85 percent of the population divided between the Atlantic group and the Southwest Florida group. Tampa Bay is in the Southwest group, the only one where scientists agree manatees are clearly in decline.