Water Rights: Florida Boaters vs. Manatees ; Federal and State Officials Promise Stricter Restrictions on Motorboats

By Warren Richey writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 2001 | Go to article overview

Water Rights: Florida Boaters vs. Manatees ; Federal and State Officials Promise Stricter Restrictions on Motorboats


Warren Richey writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Florida is bracing for yet another knock-down, drag-out statewide battle with national implications.

In November and December, it was over the right to vote.

In February and March, it will be over the right to boat.

At issue is the prospect of more expansive regulations to protect the state's endangered manatee population, rules that could render new sections of Florida's waterways off limits to motorboats.

Although formal proposals have not been made yet, many of the state's 830,000 registered boaters are worried about expanded slow- speed zones, motorboat bans, and tougher permit requirements for waterfront development such as piers and boat slips. Some are preparing to protest during public hearings expected in the next two months.

Opponents of new regulations say they favor protecting manatees, but they want to see scientific data demonstrating a specific need for each new measure. Some even question whether manatees still qualify as an endangered species.

"How are [federal and state regulators] coming up with the decision to close more of our waterways and regulate more of our lives when they don't have the data to support that action?" asks Ron Pritchard, president of Citizens for Florida's Waterways. "The science doesn't support the action."

Environmental activists disagree. They say a combination of manatee mortality data and tracking reports have enabled researchers to identify critical areas where manatees are in danger and would benefit from new safeguards.

"These manatees migrate up and down the coast and they need these safe havens along their migration routes," says Patti Thompson, a staff biologist with the Save the Manatee Club. "The manatees know where there are areas where boats don't go, so they know they are safe," she says.

The new rules were prompted by two federal lawsuits filed last year by a coalition of environmental groups, including the Save the Manatee Club. The suits charge that the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission were ignoring provisions of federal endangered species laws that required them to take a more proactive approach to manatee protection.

Both suits were settled last month. Under the terms of the negotiated settlement agreements the agencies are required to establish a statewide network of manatee safe havens - including closing some areas to motorboat traffic.

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