When environmental science collides with politics, nature all too often winds up on the losing side. This time it is the growing manatee population of Citrus County's Kings Bay that has been put at risk after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service capitulated to a loud but misguided chorus of tea party-led activists and waterfront homeowners who opposed sensible protections for the sea cows. The compromise that lowers the speed limit during the summer in part of the bay is an improvement, but federal officials should not have backed down on tougher slow-speed rules.
Kings Bay has seen a dramatic increase in its manatee population, from about 100 in 1980 to as many as 550. That increase has come at a price, with 16 boat-related deaths of the sea cows, including 13 in the past decade. To better ensure their safety, last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a series of commonsense regulations establishing Kings Bay as a year-round manatee refuge, including allowing the creation of new no-entry zones for tourists and boaters when conditions warrant and extending the wintertime slow-speed rules into the summer.
The manatees are an economic driver for Citrus County and draw more than 100,000 people in the winter to see them. The proposed new rules should have been viewed as protecting a vital economic resource. Instead they sparked an outcry, fueled in part by tea party activists such as Edna Mattos, who declared: "We cannot elevate nature above people. That's against the Bible and the Bill of Rights."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials amended part of the plan in the face of tea party protests and growing opposition to the proposed rules by owners of waterfront homes, business groups and local officials. They abandoned rules that would have extended wintertime slow-speed rules into the summer and instead reduced the current 35 mph summer limit in parts of Kings Bay to 25 mph during 10 summer weeks.
While the opponents are still grumbling over the lower boat speeds as a government intrusion, the federal government should be prepared to act quickly if the new speed limits do not provide adequate additional protection and reduce manatee deaths.
The federal government protects at least 53 animal species in Florida. Extending those protections to one of the state's most vulnerable animals is not government heavy-handedness or an affront to the Bible. It is responsible stewardship.