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Plea deal costs manatee killer his boat

Florida man with prior speeding citations avoids prison term in rare federal court prosecution

A Merritt Island, Fla., boater has forfeited his 21-foot boat as part of a plea deal for killing a manatee while speeding through a refuge.

Of the 767 Florida manatee deaths in 2010, 83 were boat- or ship-related.

Joseph E. Miata Jr., 62, ran over the manatee, a lactating female with a 10-month-old calf at her side, at about 8 p.m. July 11, 2010, on Sykes Creek in the Sykes Creek Manatee Refuge near Cape Canaveral, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and filings in U.S. District Court in Orlando.

A neighbor of Miata's happened to be out on his own boat on Sykes Creek, fishing near the northwest end of Kiwanis Island, when Miata's blue-and-white 1987 Mach 1 ripped by just 25 feet away on full plane in waters designated slow speed/minimum wake. The neighbor, identified in court documents as J.P., says he heard a "loud noise and observed the boat 'jump out of the water' and come to a stop. Immediately after the strike, J.P. saw the back half of a manatee sticking out of the water with its head down below the water and the large rear flipper splashing violently up and down on the water."

J.P. immediately reported the incident to the Florida Wildlife Commission's Wildlife Alert Hotline, according to the court filing. The wildlife commission dispatched officers, who later that evening found Miata and a friend aboard a boat matching the description of the one J.P. saw. The two denied hitting the manatee.

The next morning, the dead sea cow was found on the west shore of Kiwanis Island; the calf was never located. A necropsy determined the probable cause of death was a prop strike. Two days later, wildlife commission officers again interviewed Miata's friend, who this time acknowledged Miata had hit the animal.

"K.B. [the friend] stated that, as they entered Sykes Creek on plane at full speed, he heard a high-pitched sound from the propeller coming out of the water, accompanied by a thud below the vessel," the court documents say. K.B. then saw the manatee's tail and blood in the water. Miata later admitted to having hit something, although he didn't know what it was, and said he had been speeding, the plea agreement says.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says a Florida wildlife officer had ticketed Miata two months earlier for speeding in a manatee zone, and a federal wildlife officer had cited him for speeding in the refuge once before. The maximum punishment for an endangered species violation is a $100,000 fine and a year in prison. Miata pleaded guilty Nov. 15 to killing the manatee.

U.S. Magistrate Judge David A. Baker sentenced Miata Feb. 2 to forfeiture of his $6,000 boat, a $50 payment each month for a year to a wildlife organization and one year of probation.

"I feel the sentence was very fair and appropriate, based on the facts of the case," says Miata's Orlando lawyer, Corey Cohen. It won't keep his client off the water, though. "Mr. Miata will continue to boat and obey all traffic laws," Cohen says.

This is just the second time in the almost 40 years since the Endangered Species Act was adopted that a boater has faced criminal prosecution by federal authorities for striking and killing a manatee, says federal wildlife service spokesman Chuck Underwood.

The St. Petersburg Times reported that a Stuart, Fla., sportfishing boat captain was fined $750 and sent to prison for six months in 1984 for accidentally killing a manatee calf and cutting it up to feed his family.

Underwood says it's hard to prosecute operators for boat-related manatee deaths unless investigators can link a "specific boat to a specific manatee to a specific operator." Investigators were able to establish those links in this case because there were witnesses, he says.

Miata's repeat offenses also were a factor. The judge's sentence carried a message: "This time, your flagrant negligence resulted in the death of a manatee. This boat is no longer yours," Underwood said.

He hopes the conviction also sends a message beyond the courtroom. "If you choose to violate the [manatee] zones, you're going to get caught at some point."

The Florida Wildlife Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute reported that 83 of 767 manatee deaths in 2010 were watercraft-related (boat and ship). Fourteen of the boating-related deaths were in Brevard County, where this case played out.

Spotters counted 4,840 manatees in January on Florida's east and west coasts.

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.