Manatees need greater protection from developers destroying the places where they live, a coalition of environmental groups said Friday.
They petitioned federal officials to update the map of "critical habitat" used by manatees — and targeted the Tampa Bay area as one of the major spots in need of updating, since not one section of the bay is covered by the current map.
"It's a big hole that needs to be plugged," said Patti Thompson, a former state manatee biologist who wrote the petition for the Save the Manatee Club, Defenders of Wildlife, the Wildlife Advocacy Project and the Center for Biological Diversity.
If federal officials agree, the change could lead to increased scrutiny for permits allowing new development in those waterfront areas, said the groups' attorney, Eric Glitzenstein.
On the other hand, it could make it easier to get permits for projects built in areas not considered critical habitat for manatees, he said.
The petition does not seek any new restrictions on boating.
Local builders, already reeling from the current economic downturn, may not be thrilled with the petition.
"Some of the first developable properties, as we start to come out of this, will be waterfront properties," predicted Ron Weaver, a Tampa development attorney who has worked for waterfront builders. "There needs to be a balance between protecting the environment for the manatees and getting this economy going again and getting people back to work."
Federal officials have 90 days to respond to the petition, filed under the Endangered Species Act.
Updating the map of critical habitat is something the agency itself has proposed in its plan to help the species, Glitzenstein said, but "it's been on the back-burner for a long time."
More than 30 years have passed since the last time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mapped out manatees' critical habitat. Those maps mark the places needed most by an endangered species for eating, breeding and living. The agency is supposed to scrutinize any new development in such areas to make sure it won't jeopardize the species' future.