Florida boaters targeted again

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It’s a New Year, but the banner headline in the Tampa Bay Times isn’t new. Rather, it could signal the start of another push against Florida boaters, marina operators, dock construction permits and demands for more slow-speed zones, all in the name of manatee protection.

Finding ways to assure the manatee survives and flourishes has been ongoing in Florida for more than 50 years, ever since the docile sea cow made the first federal Endangered Species list in 1967. Since then, a variety of actions have been taken to protect manatees. These have included thousands of square miles of slow-speed zones on waterways where Manatees are known to frequent, some seasonal and some year-round. It also made it extremely difficult to obtain a permit, if at all, to construct or expand docks and marinas in many locations.

But as difficult and often contentious the process has been, the myriad restrictions now in place have been successful in making certain that manatees will continue to flourish. Indeed, experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2017, even in the face of some opposition, determined the manatee could be removed from the endangered list down to threatened status, essentially meaning there is no longer a threat of extinction in the next 100 years.

It was celebrated news for manatee lovers, and that surely included Florida boaters. The manatee has become a beloved symbol of the Sunshine State. And there’s no group that admires and wants to protect manatees more than boaters. The most recent official counts indicate there are now more than 6,000 manatees in Florida waters, the highest level since counts began.

In addition, in places such as Crystal River, well-known as a place where manatees winter in warm spring waters, hundreds of thousands of dollars are being paid to contractors to replant sea grass areas that have been wiped out by feeding manatees. These areas must be fenced off to give the sea grass time to mature.

But with the increasing numbers of manatees and the growth of boats plying Florida waters, accidental collisions with sea cows are unfortunately inevitable. That was the focus of the front-page article by Tampa Bay Times staff writer Craig Pittman calling attention to boaters setting a “new record for killing manatees in the state’s waterways in 2019.”

There were 130 manatees killed by boats last year, up from 122 in 2018, 108 in 2017 and 104 in 2016. Concurrently, the number of registered boats rose from 931,000 in 2016 to over 950,000 in 2018.

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While everyone wants to see the number of deaths trend down, it’s important to see the entire picture. The total number of manatee deaths from all causes in 2019 was 574. That was good news compared to the 824 that died the previous year, primarily due to the worst red tide outbreak in a decade, which plagued coastal Florida for 19 months.

It is unknown how many manatee deaths are caused by recreational boats vs. collisions with commercial vessels. Regardless, boaters are an easy target for groups that would advocate for even more restrictions on the state’s waterways. And front-page articles with banner headlines condemning boaters can stimulate calls for action restricting boating.

Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save The Manatee Club, reportedly contends that the change in status of the manatee from endangered to threatened (which the club opposed) has led to less concern from boaters about manatees, as well as less enforcement of boat speeds. While just supposition, it does reinforce the need for Florida boat dealers, marina operators and boating clubs to continue to educate customers about obeying speed zones and manatee protection areas.

Clearly, as an industry, we don’t want to be locked in more battles with groups that cannot accept a fair balance between animal protection and human recreational endeavor.

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