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    Manatee accord hailed as lifesaver

    Some boaters are upset with new restrictions designed to help reduce manatee deaths caused by speeding boats.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2001


    ORLANDO -- Over strong objections from boaters, the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission agreed Thursday to a legal settlement to protect manatees that promises new restrictions on boating in some waterways, including the Homosassa and Alafia rivers and Tampa Bay.

    Environmental groups hailed the decision as an important step in cutting the number of manatees hit by boats. Speeding boats killed 78 manatees last year, and so far this year they have slain 30.

    "We're not talking about shutting down boating in Florida," said Coby Dolan of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which represented manatee advocates in the federal lawsuit. "We're talking about sharing the waterways."

    But Ron Pritchard of the boating group Citizens for Florida Waterways contended commissioners had "been bamboozled by eco-radical groups."

    Commissioners voted 5-1 to approve the settlement, which is the result of a federal suit filed by about 20 environmental and animal welfare groups to force the state to beef up protection for the manatee. The lone no vote came from Commissioner Quentin Hedgepeth of Miami, who said he did not believe the state has done anything wrong.

    Facing a crowd of about 200, the commission spent more than five hours hearing from builders, anglers, skiers and a 6-year-old boy. But one of the strongest voices belonged to someone who was not present: Gov. Jeb Bush.

    Through his top Cabinet aide, Coleen Castille, Bush sent word that the commission ought to settle so that state officials, not a federal judge, will make decisions about boating restrictions. She said this also will persuade federal officials to drop more onerous restrictions.

    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which this year settled a similar lawsuit, had been studying 150 possible locations for manatee refuges and sanctuaries. But Castille said the agency has agreed to drop its refuge plans if the state sets up a handful of safe havens called for in the settlement.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been threatening to pay for increased enforcement by charging an additional $500 to $1,000 for every new dock, boat slip, davit and marina parking space seeking a permit. To avoid that, Bush wants to spend an extra $6-million to pay for hiring more than 40 state wildlife officers to enforce the law on Florida's waterways, she said.

    After delivering her boss' message to the commission, Castille then shuttled between boaters and environmentalists negotiating last-minute changes to mollify the boaters. John Sprague of the Marine Industries Association called the result "palatable" for waterfront developers, although boating-rights advocates were still dissatisfied.

    Afterward, as one boating group leader was trying to explain his position, avid boater Jerry Abrams walked up to deliver a personal ultimatum.

    "If you guys aren't going to fight this, then give me my 50 bucks back," Abrams of Merritt Island said. "This is bull---- today."

    Under the settlement, the state agency would consider imposing new speed zone rules in nine areas, starting in Brevard County but then moving on to the Alafia River in Hillsborough County and Terra Ceia Bay in Manatee County, among others.

    At the same time, the agency would plan even tighter restrictions in eight other areas that would be declared "safe havens" for manatees -- places where entry by all boats might be limited or forbidden at least part of the year.

    That list includes the Blue Waters in Citrus County, just outside Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, a popular destination for tour guides taking visitors to see and swim with manatees. Save the Manatee Club biologist Patti Thompson said that her group wants "a very, very, very small spot" in Blue Waters to be off-limits because it has seen "consistent harassment by divers."

    The settlement also calls for the commission to prepare new rules by early 2003 for manatee protection in Tampa Bay, although at this point no one knows what those rules would say. While working on the Tampa Bay rules, the wildlife commission would also consider creating six more safe havens, one of which would be Port Sutton in Tampa.

    Boating advocates unhappy at the prospect of further limits on their recreation urged the commission to set a target for how many manatees it will take to declare them no longer in danger of extinction.

    "We want to know when enough is enough," said Jim Kalvin of the boating-rights group Standing Watch. So in addition to the settlement, the commission agreed to work with federal wildlife officials in setting a goal for manatee recovery. This year biologists counted 3,276 manatees, the most ever.

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