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    Boaters facing higher fees

    To find more money for manatee protection, a state House panel votes to increase the costs of registering boats.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- This is not a choice that thousands of Floridians will relish.

    Boat registration increases of $5 to $15 a year, courtesy of the state. Or astronomical increases in new dock-permit fees, courtesy of the federal government.

    Those are two options facing Florida lawmakers, as federal officials push the state to spend more money on patrols by wildlife officers to protect manatees from speeding boats.

    Until Florida puts up more money, marine industry officials say, federal agencies are not issuing permits for many waterfront developments around the state.

    "We are getting no boat ramps, no marina slips, until we show that we are getting serious about enforcement," John Sprague of the Marine Industry Association of Florida said.

    Industry lobbyist Wade Hopping estimated that 1,000 permits have been held up.

    Under pressure to find money to protect the manatees, the House Natural Resources Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to get it from the state's boaters. The bill they approved boosts the annual fees the state charges to register everything from a 12-foot kayak to a 200-foot yacht.

    "Hopefully this will get us out of this permit mess," Sprague said.

    State officials acknowledge that the fee increases, which range from $5 to $15 a year depending on the size of the boat, are not going to make boaters happy.

    But if the state does nothing, then federal officials have proposed putting their own officers out on the water and paying for their time in a way that marine industry lobbyist Hopping called "pretty noxious."

    Hopping said the federal government is threatening to charge an additional $500 and $1,000 for every new dock, boat slip, davit and marina parking space seeking a permit for construction. So the state's homebuilders and developers have lined up to support increasing the boating registration fee instead, Hopping said.

    Hopping and other boating advocates say they support beefing up enforcement of current boating restrictions, but they would prefer finding another way to pay for it besides raising the fees.

    In fact, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said she had been urged by Gov. Jeb Bush to find another way to come up with the $8-million needed for manatee protection. She assured committee members she would try to find an alternative before the bill is brought up again.

    However, Bush spokeswoman Elizabeth Hirst said that Bush has taken no position for or against increasing the boat registration fees. He just wants to study all the alternatives, she said.

    "The governor is committed to funding additional law enforcement to pay for protection of the manatee," she said.

    One alternative would be to take $8-million out of the gas taxes collected at marinas when boaters refuel their vessels. Most of the gas-tax money now goes to the state Department of Transportation to pay for road construction.

    "They've got over a billion bucks, so $8-million isn't that much," Hopping contended. "They ought to be spending that money on waterways."

    But DOT officials are not keen on giving up the gas-tax money. The DOT already gives more than $8-million to the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection to spend on things such as studying freshwater fish and spraying aquatic weeds, DOT spokesman Dick Kane said.

    "We've kind of already given at the office," Kane said.

    The debate over boosting the fees comes as many boaters are already up in arms over new restrictions aimed at protecting the state's manatee population. The restrictions are the result of two federal lawsuits filed by environmental and animal rights groups against state and federal agencies.

    The suits, filed under the federal Endangered Species Act, contended that government officials were not doing enough to protect the manatee from being killed by speeding boats, or to protect its habitat from being destroyed by development.

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which permits waterfront development, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees endangered species protection, agreed to a settlement of the suit in January.

    As part of the settlement, federal officials are considering declaring some waterways manatee sanctuaries that are off-limits to all boats at least part of the year. So far they have not decided which areas would be put off-limits.

    State officials are considering a similar settlement, with a list of areas for new speed restrictions and "safe havens" for manatees that would include waterways around the Tampa Bay area. Boating groups are urging the commission to reject the proposal.

    The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is scheduled to discuss that proposed settlement Friday. But commission officials said Wednesday that they will not vote on the settlement until they can hold a public hearing on it next month in Central Florida.

    Fueling the controversy is that researchers counted a record 3,276 manatees this winter, prompting boating advocates to argue that perhaps it is time to take them off the federal endangered species list.

    That is unlikely to happen anytime soon, said Allan Egbert, executive director of the state wildlife commission. But the state's own endangered species listing system is different, he noted, and he expects someone to petition to have the manatee downgraded on the state list, perhaps to "threatened."

    "It has been suggested, with some merit, that if we were to run the manatee through our criteria it may not be listed as endangered under state law," Egbert told committee members.

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