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Manatee tunnel vision

Proponents of staging a high-powered boat race in October along a manatee migration path in Tampa's Seddon Channel say there's nothing to worry about. They say race organizers have proved in the past three years that races can be run there without harming the slow-moving, endangered manatees.

On a preliminary vote that allows plans for the fourth annual Tampa Challenge Professional Tunnel Boat Race to proceed, the Tampa City Council has again agreed with that argument. Spotters are stationed to look for manatees approaching the race course, and if one comes too close, the race can be halted. Nonetheless, one year a manatee slipped past spotters and made its way onto the course. It was sighted, fortunately, and catastrophe was avoided.

Council members should rethink the situation before their June 24 vote for final approval of the race. Just because a manatee hasn't been unlucky so far is no reason to sanction such an unfair match.

On top of the water are the powerful tunnel boats, craft whose enclosed outboard engines are capable of accelerating from 0 to 100 in under five seconds and can reach speeds of 130 miles an hour. Beneath the surface are the slow-moving manatees, huge mammals lured through the channel in cooler weather to waters warmed by discharge from the Big Bend power plant farther south. Settlement talks in a federal lawsuit over how much contact humans should be allowed to have with manatees could produce new protections for the mammals, whose numbers continue to diminish from collisions with boat propellers and hulls.

Even if the manatee were not endangered, Seddon Channel's murky water makes race organizers' reliance on spotters too much of a gamble. For the sake of the manatees and the people who respect the significance of a dying species, the Tampa City Council should lose its tunnel vision on this issue. The economic impact that high-speed boat races bring to Tampa shouldn't be worth an irreversible environmental one.

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