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Bush takes a stand for the manatee

Until counties start protecting the species, they'll get no new boat slips, Gov. Jeb Bush says.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 26, 2000


TALLAHASSEE- Gov. Jeb Bush says Florida's manatees are not going to vanish on his watch.

On Tuesday, he sent a message: The state won't approve any more boat slips unless counties have solid plans to protect the sea cows.

"There's an endangered species that's close to being extinct in Florida waters, and I don't want to be part of that," said Bush, who toted a stuffed manatee named Marty on his campaign and had a manatee at Sea World named after him. "It's my favorite mammal."

A decade ago, faced with dwindling numbers of manatees, former Gov. Bob Martinez and the Cabinet ordered 13 coastal counties to create manatee protection plans. The plans had to detail where docks, marinas and boat ramps should go, and mandate slow-speed zones, boater education and more enforcement to catch speeders. The idea was to steer large numbers of boats away from waters where manatees congregate.

But 10 years later, even though record numbers of manatees are dying, only four counties -- Collier, Dade, Duval and Citrus -- have plans in place.

Scientists estimate that 2,200 to 2,500 manatees remain in Florida waters. Many of those bear scars from boat propellers. In June, the Department of Environmental Protection reported 175 manatees have died so far this year, about one every day.

"We have to come to grips with this," Bush said, thrilling manatee advocates in the Cabinet audience Tuesday and blindsiding representatives from the marine industry, who heard about the governor's comments later.

"I think the governor is grossly misinformed and he's overreacting on the side of the radical environmentalists," said Ed Day, executive director of the Florida Marine Contractors Association in Marco Island. "I'm sorry the manatee is his favorite mammal. Humans are my favorite mammal. Marinas and boat slips don't kill manatees. Irresponsible boaters do."

Bush's tough talk on manatees came when the Sarasota Yacht Club came to Tuesday's Cabinet with a request to enlarge its marina from 84 slips to 108. Sarasota County is one of the coastal counties that has failed pass a manatee protection plan.

"I don't think it is appropriate for the (state) to allow for expansion of these facilities unless there's some indication of the counties working on their plan," Bush said. "We can't approve marinas without using some influence to encourage these manatee protection plans. From here on out we're going to be very consistent."

Bush said he would likely approve marinas in counties where manatee protection plans are already in place. As proof, Bush and the Cabinet on Tuesday unanimously approved a marina expansion at Dinner Key in Miami-Dade County.

The Cabinet deferred the Sarasota Yacht Club request until September, but the governor's message was clear.

After the meeting, Bush said that the manatee mortality rate this year is not acceptable. "It's very important and we do have a responsibility. I think we can do a lot better," Bush said. "There's a point past which an endangered species becomes an extinct one."

Manatees have been on the endangered species list for more than 30 years.

At the beginning of this year, 19 environmental groups, including the Save the Manatee Club, Sierra Club and Florida Audubon Society filed lawsuits in Florida and Washington against state and federal agencies, accusing the government of failing to protect manatees from extinction.

"We've been continually asking the governor to declare a state of emergency in regards to the manatee," said Jerry Karnas, a lobbyist for Save the Manatee.

Karnas said he was surprised and pleased at Bush's tough stance Tuesday.

"We've been hoping he'd take this stance all along," Karnas said. "We're not against marinas. We're not against boats. We're for responsible policies in regards to manatees."

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