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Ruling protects marine species

A judge says that a new conservation agency, approved by voters in 1998, protects both turtles and manatees - not just endangered species on land.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2000


Florida's voters intended for the new Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to have full constitutional power to protect every kind of endangered species, not just the ones on land, a Tallahassee circuit judge ruled Friday.

The ruling marks a victory for four environmental groups -- the Florida Wildlife Federation, Sea Turtle Survival League, Save the Manatee Club and the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund -- which sued last year after state lawmakers exempted sea turtles and manatees from the new commission's power.

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission was created by the voters when they overwhelmingly approved changing the state Constitution in 1998.

The constitutional amendment they approved called for merging the powerful Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission with the Marine Fisheries Commission, which historically lacked the game commission's independence and authority in creating new rules.

The prospect of seeing manatees and sea turtles protected by a commission that had the same constitutional standing as the Legislature itself was one of the reasons groups like the Save the Manatee Club supported what was known as Amendment 5.

Amendment 5 specified that the new commission would "exercise regulatory and executive powers of the state with respect to marine life." Nothing in the amendment mentions any exceptions.

Figuring out the mechanics of the agencies' merger was up to the Legislature. Lawmakers specified that the commission would not have the same constitutional authority over endangered and threatened marine species that it will have over other endangered and threatened species, such as the Florida panther. That would make it easier to challenge or change any of the commission's proposed rules that might be designed to protect marine species, agency officials said.

The environmental groups contended the legislative exemption was unconstitutional and ignored the voters' wishes. The fish and wildlife commission disagreed.

Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis sided Friday with the environmental groups.

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