Boaters’ rights part of new manatee bill

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Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has signed a bill requiring state regulatory agencies to develop science-based policies for manatee protection, and to consider boaters’ rights to use and enjoy the waterways when their rules makers adopt measures to protect the endangered sea cow.

Boating advocates are hailing the bill as a step toward restoring balance between protecting manatees and boaters’ use of the waters.

“It makes it a balancing act. It’s not one-sided anymore,” says Tom McGill, a Merritt Island, Fla., charter captain and board member of Citizens for Florida Waterways, a boaters’ group. “It’s a start.”

The bill makes it more difficult to adopt more manatee protection rules in parts of Florida where manatee population goals have been met.

“This provision has led many to argue this bill lessens protection for manatees, and thus could slow the recovery of the manatee population,” the governor wrote in a June 23 letter sent with the signed bill. “These biological goals have already been established by the state and they address adult population survival and reproduction and overall manatee growth. The bill provides that ‘great weight’ be given to existing rules that are working, i.e., when measurable goals have been met in a region.” He said the law does not prevent state agencies from regulating vessels in Florida to protect manatees.

The bill also authorizes the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to use genetic tagging to study the manatee population and what influences its size and distribution. It also requires the FWCC to study boat speed limits and signage to see if they are safe for boaters and effective in preventing manatee deaths; look at the feasibility of high-speed corridors through manatee zones; and consider safer alternatives to putting manatee protection signs on unlighted pilings in the water. It also directs Mote Marine Laboratory to study manatee habitat and grass beds around the warm-water outflows of power plants where manatees congregate in winter, and assess the plants’ impact on manatees’ health and survivability.

Bush said the population and habitat studies should “improve our understanding of the status and health of manatee populations.”

Boating groups have argued that many of the manatee regulations are based on “junk science,” and that the manatee population is recovering and not as stressed as the animals’ advocates maintain.