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Manatee count breaks a record in Florida

Aerial surveys by biologists during February tallied a record number of manatees, more than 6,000 of them around Florida, raising serious questions about any need to impose more restrictions on recreational boating in the name of manatee protection. When is enough, enough?

Now I know if you’re not a Florida dealer you might be thinking there’s no point in reading on. Read on anyway. And, yes, when I lived on Lake Erie I admit I joked with my Floridian counterparts who were struggling with manatee-related problems about not sending any of the sea cows up to Cleveland. But now that I live in the Sunshine State, my old jokes have come back to roost.

A team of 20 observers from 11 organizations reported counting 3,333 manatees on Florida’s east coast and 2,730 on the west coast. That’s 6,063 or about 1,000 more than the old record set in 2010, according to reports in the Tampa Bay Times.

“The high population count shows our long-term conservation efforts are working,” Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission chairman Robert Corbett told Times reporter Craig Pittman. State officials cite boating regulations among the measures that were initiated in 2001 to settle a lawsuit by the Save The Manatee Club.

“Obviously, it’s very good news, but it needs to be kept in context,” said Pat Rose, executive director of the club. “It doesn’t mean we’ve got 1,000 more manatees than we had in 2010.” Really?

The truth is even with this obvious success, efforts to further restrict boating activities continue. For example, plans that will impose slow manatee zones from St. Petersburg Beach to Tarpon Springs on Florida’s west coast are expected to be approved next month. While groups like the Tampa Bay Committee of the Southwest Florida Marine Industries Association succeeded in getting major sections of the Intracoastal Waterway channel removed from the proposed restrictions, there will still be some 20 new restricted areas zones, some as large as 11 square miles.

Elsewhere, the “Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility” reportedly has given the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service notice that it wants them to further restrict activities in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Each winter, some 265,000 tourists flock to see and swim with the manatees that gather there for the warm waters of Kings Bay and Three Sister Springs. There were nearly 1,000 manatees counted there last month.

The tours are operated by professional tour companies that carefully instruct the visitors on the proper rules of engagement with manatees and have employee(s) in the water to supervise at all times. No manatee has ever been harmed or killed by a swimmer’s petting and it’s a major winter economic engine for the community.

Meanwhile, the Pacific Legal Foundation has asked the FWS to lower the manatee from endangered to threatened status. The group represents Save Crystal River, which opposes recently imposed FWS rules restricting boaters to slow speed in Kings Bay in the summer months although the manatees have mostly scattered to their summer haunts along the Gulf of Mexico.

So when is enough, enough? Here are two things that should happen, given the happy realization that the old argument about manatees in decline no longer holds water.

First, the manatee no longer belongs on the endangered list. While no one wants to harm or endanger a manatee, something especially true for boaters, it should be downgraded to reflect the facts we know in 2015, not 1997 when it was first put on the endangered list.

Second, we are long past the point at which the FWS can continue to justify a moratorium on issuing new dock construction permits in many Florida areas citing the endangered manatee population.

When it comes to more boating restrictions, enough is enough.

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