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Let’s Charge Boaters with Racketeering!

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Trying to understand why lawmakers do what they do may require some anthropology, more psychology and a whole lot of befuddlement! A case in point — Florida’s state legislature.

That’s essentially what the Southwest Florida Marine Industries Association and the Marine Industries Association of Florida are saying while alerting the industry to a bill that could make boaters face charges of racketeering for accidentally injuring or killing a protected species, like a manatee.

As written, two bills working their way through both the Florida House and Senate could charge anyone who has a “take,” including an incidental “take,” of any protected species with violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization — the RICO Act — the same law used to charge mob bosses and drug lords! (Pardon me while I pause for a head slap.)

According to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission, there is no intention to pursue a RICO violation for an “incidental take.” But good intentions or not, passage of Senate bill #776 and House bill #783 would clearly allow it, and there is no guarantee FWC or other agency would not use it in the future. Moreover, RICO charges can result in very heavy penalties, forfeiture of property (bah-bye boat), and serious jail time.

Both SWFMIA and MIAF are urging members to contact their lawmakers about changing or totally removing this provision that genuinely threatens all boaters who could accidentally collide with and injure or kill a protected species, including manatees.

Manatees are in serious trouble (and not from boats)

It’s ironic that manatees, a popular creature in Florida waters, are also in the news for a totally different reason these days. And, for once it’s not the press blasting boaters for accidentally hitting one of these sea cows. No, it appears these docile creatures that are, in fact, loved as much by boaters as anyone else, are actually starving to death this year in unprecedented numbers.

Specifically, more than 432 manatees reportedly died in Florida waters between January 1 and March 5 — that’s an alarming 300-plus more than the five-year average for the same period. An inordinate number of the deaths have been in Brevard County on the state’s east coast.

Manatee observers are pointing to poor water quality as the reason for this serious die-off.

“It’s something we’ve really never seen before,” Pat Rose, director of the Save The Manatee Club recently told USA Today. “It looks like we have a substantial number actually starving to death.”

At the current rate, a record 2,100 deaths could occur in Florida this year, potentially wiping out about one-third of the state’s known count of 7,520 manatees.

While NOAA’s U.S. Fish & Wildlife has now begun an investigation, most observers are calling it what they feel is obvious: the ever-increasing algae blooms that plague so many of America’s waterways have been major factors in killing off large areas of Florida’s sea grasses. These grasses are the crucial source of food for manatees. There’s little doubt that algae blooms are triggered by chemicals, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, that are predominant in agricultural fertilizers.

Areas like the Banana River and Mosquito Lagoon, located in the northern end of the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County, have suffered from a series of algal and phytoplankton blooms triggered by the infusion of fresh water and nutrients from Lake Okeechobee in central Florida. The blooms are believed to be the primary reason the sea grass is being wiped out there.

Overall, serious annual algae blooms are attributable to the nutrient-rich runoff that flows into Lake Okeechobee from the huge sugar fields in central Florida and eventually spills out into both coasts of Florida. It triggered SWFMIA to commission a study to determine what degree the boating industry along Florida’s west coast is being negatively impacted by algae blooms. While Covid slowed that study down, it’s still expected to be completed soon.

“We think the study will document to difficulty we have in selling boats and boating when the newspapers and TV show pictures of green-gooped waterways,” said SWFMIA executive director John Good. “It’s the first known study being undertaken to quantify the algae impact on our members, and we’ll use the data to back up our calls for appropriate action by lawmakers and regulators.”

In the meanwhile, perhaps the alarming news about the much-loved manatees will also get long-needed regulatory action leading to elimination of the algae blooms. 

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