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    Group wants manatee off endangered list

    The fishing group opposes new waterway restrictions and questions whether the manatee is endangered.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published August 21, 2001


    Concerned about waterways being put off-limits to boats, a sport-fishing group has formally requested that the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission re-evaluate whether manatees belong on Florida's list of endangered species.

    The Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, the state's largest recreational fishing group, hopes that state action to take the manatees off the endangered list will prompt federal officials to undertake a similar review, according to CCA executive director Ted Forsgren.

    "Environmental and animal rights groups continue to state that manatee populations are in serious trouble and declining toward extinction," Forsgren wrote in the request, which the state agency received Monday. "We believe that all the available state and federal scientific information shows a completely different picture."

    But Patti Thompson of the Save the Manatee Club said downgrading the manatee's endangered status "is definitely not something the state should be fooling around with."

    Manatees have been on the federal and state endangered species lists since their inception. Being listed gives them a legally protected status that environmental groups have used as the basis for lawsuits against state and federal agencies, accusing them of doing a poor job of saving manatees from being run over by boats.

    Legal settlements reached earlier this year are expected to lead to new restrictions on boating and waterfront development around the state.

    In a backlash to the new restrictions, boating groups have begun openly questioning whether the manatee really is endangered, especially because the most recent census counted 3,276 of them statewide. That is the highest count since the census began 10 years ago and an increase of more than 1,000 over the previous year's count.

    Forsgren said his organization, which represents 10,000 members across the state, filed its petition because the state agency is in the process of designating certain waterways, including areas around Tampa Bay, as "safe havens" for manatees, curtailing boat traffic in those areas.

    Before adding new regulations to protect manatees, Forsgren said, the state ought to determine whether they are necessary. Last year, the CCA paid $10,000 to former state Marine Fisheries Commission Chairman Thomas Fraser for a biological study of manatees. In his report, Fraser said the manatee population is "growing at a healthy rate."

    After Fraser's report was presented to the state wildlife commission, manatee advocates attacked it. Three marine mammal specialists said the manatee remains in peril because so many are killed each year by speeding boats -- 78 last year.

    Brian Millsap of the state wildlife agency said officials will review the CCA petition and recommend to commissioners in November whether to pursue it. The state's evaluation process for listing species is fairly new.

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