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A race against manatees

High-powered boats that are more like missiles than watercraft are going to be allowed to race smack through the migration path of the endangered Florida manatee. This is environmental stewardship? It's environmental stupidity, for which all parties involved should be embarrassed and all Floridians should be outraged, especially when they consider how it came about.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it was okay, and the U.S. Coast Guard then issued a permit for the Offshore Professional Tour, scheduled the last weekend in November. Of course, officials from Tampa did their part by recruiting the world-class boat competition to Hillsborough Bay, the lure of a possible $8-million in business and celebrities at the helm of Cigarette boats apparently outweighing concern for the manatee.

The manatees lucked out last weekend. None died as a result of a smaller-scale powerboat race in Seddon Channel. But they only have so much luck left. There are about 1,200 remaining in Florida, and 181 have died this year, many because of boats. Of the 1989 deaths, 51 were known to have been caused by propeller or collision injuries.

The November race, a bigger course with boats ripping through the water at 100 miles an hour, will occur when colder temperatures will be spurring the area's manatee population in larger numbers to be moving toward the waters warmed by discharge from the Big Bend power plant at the south end of Hillsborough Bay.

Now there is much scrambling going on, with federal officials admitting they shouldn't have approved the race for this time of year but not rescinding the permit, and race officials agreeing to alter the course away from the power plant and to station spotters to watch for manatees sticking their fat snouts out of the water. The faulty premise is that the race would be halted if manatees were observed in the area, as if a boat hurtling 100 miles an hour could be stopped from crashing into a manatee in its way. Strict zones for spectator boats are also being worked out.

The saddest element of this fiasco, however, is that its risk to the dwindling manatees goes far beyond the danger of the four-day race. Sanctioning a speedboat race in this fragile environmental area sends a message to the people who operate more than 700,000 boats in Florida that it is all right to disregard nature. "The totally uncontrolled, largely uneducated boating public is a great problem," says Charles Lee of the Florida Audubon Society. Boat manufacturers and marine dealers are not focusing on the "family boater" any longer, he says, exploiting instead "the Miami Vice mentality."

That reckless, high-speed mentality is not compatible with manatees' survival.

Race officials, not surprisingly, say canceling the race is out of the question, because some of the fancy boats are already on their way here from around the world. The Florida Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is urging that the race be moved offshore, where no manatees travel.

It shouldn't be too difficult to find suitable water somewhere else in Florida, but if the race is not at least relocated it should be called off. Federal officials, having ignored their responsibility to endangered species by approving the race at this time of year in the first place, should act immediately to correct the error. Tampa officials should work with race officials to find a better location, as well as rethink their priorities before committing another environmental blunder. If other measures fail, the state DNR should demand an injunction.

Meanwhile, Floridians fortunate enough to glimpse a manatee this winter should consider themselves lucky. It could be their last chance.