Are boating restrictions against the Bill of Rights?

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It’s the tea party versus the manatees . . . at least that’s the story behind the headline in yesterday’s St. Petersburg Times. Reporter Craig Pittman cited opposition to new powers to restrict boating that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service wants.

It seems the Citrus County Tea Party Patriots have staked out their position that the new rules — which could eliminate boating in an entire bay — go against the Bill of Rights. They’re not alone. The Crystal River City Council and the Citrus County Commission agree, along with area boaters and tours operators, all see FWS actions as bad for tourism and the local economy.

The small Florida community of Crystal River is located along the Gulf of Mexico about 65 miles north of Tampa. Its Kings Bay became famous some 40 years ago when Jacques Cousteau featured the Bay’s manatees in “Forgotten Mermaids.” These days more than 100,000 visitors come each winter to view, interact and even swim with the manatees.

In 1980, a series of five manatee sanctuary areas in the Bay were established. Last winter, however, FWS posted “temporary” rules that enabled the agency to close more areas and set other rules anywhere in the Bay “as the situation arises.” FWS is now proposing to declare all of Kings Bay a refuge and make those temporary rules permanent. It could lead to elimination, for example, of the summer “water sports zone” that permits fast boat operation, or FWS could unilaterally establish “no entry” areas which could even include private docks on private property around the Bay. It all raises the question: when is enough regulation enough?

Records show that when the sanctuary zones were instituted in 1980, there were an estimated 100 summer manatees there. (The manatee population greatly increases during the winter months.) Today, FWS says there are more than 500 in the Bay year-round. That’s excellent! It clearly demonstrates that the current regulations and policies are adequate.

The Save the Manatee Club claims the manatees are now in great danger. You’ll recall this is the group that used to dress their kids in baby manatee costumes and parade them through the Florida legislature. But the facts don’t back them up. In the last 10 years on Kings Bay, 13 manatee deaths have been attributed to boats, just 6 during the summer months when the “water sports zone” is active.

On so many fronts these days, federal agencies in general have become belligerent in their goal to issue new restrictions and regulations on everything from styrene to snapper. This is just another example of government overreaching. Hopefully there will be sufficient pushback in the Crystal River area to keep the FWS from going over the top. To that end, the Tea Party Patriots are urging letters to their Congressional delegation.

If you want to throw your hat in the ring, FWS is accepting public comment on its Kings Bay proposals until Aug. 22.


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