Manatee bill keeps boaters in mind

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Amendment to Manatee Sanctuary Act would ‘assure maximum recreational use’ of waterways

Amendment to Manatee Sanctuary Act would ‘assure maximum recreational use’ of waterways

Advocates for boating and manatees remained on tenterhooks as they waited for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to sign or veto a manatee bill — the latest salvo in the fight over how to protect endangered sea cows.

Boating activists say if it becomes law the bill will put manatee protection on a sound scientific footing that, until now, has been missing. Defenders of the manatee say it will just create legal loopholes and leave the marine mammal without much protection at all.

Senate bill 540 — an amendment to Florida’s Manatee Sanctuary Act — authorizes the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to use genetic tagging to study the manatee population and what influences its size and distribution. Manatee advocates say that’s fine, but what worries them is that the bill also directs the FWCC to use the study’s scientific data to not only protect manatees better but “assure maximum recreational use of the state’s waterways.”

“This is the first [manatee] bill that recognizes that some consideration needs to be given to the boater and fisherman,” says Tom McGill, a Merritt Island, Fla., charter captain and board member of Citizens for Florida Waterways, a boater advocacy group.

Pat Rose, Save The Manatee Club legislative director, says inserting a provision promoting boating into the manatee protection law will lead to legal turmoil. “It’s almost like a Trojan horse,” he says.

McGill says the bill keeps those who regulate boats and boating from using “junk science” to protect manatees and restores balance in state policy between protecting manatees and encouraging boating.

Rose is a boater and biologist who worked 16 years in government endangered species programs, and spearheaded development of Florida’s manatee protections before becoming STM’s Tallahassee lobbyist. Charter captain McGill is an engineer, former Boeing Aircraft executive, and author of “The Florida Manatee Conspiracy of Ignorance,” released in April under McGill’s own RALCO Press imprint.

Senate bill 540 would make it more difficult to enact new manatee protection rules in parts of Florida where manatee population goals are achieved. It would require the FWCC to study boat speed limits and signs to see if they are safe for boaters and effective in preventing manatee deaths; study 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 would require Florida’s 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 impact of the power plants on the manatees’ health and survivability.

Rose says STM supports more legitimate manatee research but characterizes the research in this bill as a “ruse” because the money to fund it was deleted before the bill was passed.

McGill’s 300-page volume challenges many of the scientific assumptions underpinning Florida’s manatee recovery plan. He did research of his own and relies heavily on research from manatee audiology researcher Ed Gerstein to show that slowing boats down actually exposes manatees to higher risk of being hit because they can’t hear low-frequency noise from an engine running at low speed.

Florida’s Gov. Jeb Bush has been a staunch supporter of manatee protections. “There’s some talk about him vetoing [the bill], which I hope he won’t do,” McGill says.

“I hope the governor vetoes it,” Rose countered. He says boating and manatee interests should thrash out their differences at a negotiating table, not in the courts where this bill is likely to take them.