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More boats no threat, officials say

Federal officials believe that the sky's the limit for waterfront development and boat traffic in Florida, so long as enough officers are out cruising the waterways making boaters slow down and avoid manatees.

If there are enough officers, "then the number of boats on the water . . . would largely be irrelevant," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials wrote in an internal document labeled "Not For Release" that has turned up as part of a lawsuit over manatee protection.

Federal officials calculate that because the state recently hired 25 new game officers and reassigned 23 more to manatee protection duties, Florida could add 370,000 more boat slips over the next 10 years. Currently, the state averages about 5,000 new boat slips a year, according to federal officials.

A county-by-county breakdown prepared by federal officials shows that more than 26,000 new boat slips could be permitted in Pinellas; about 3,000 in Hillsborough; 22,000 in Pasco; nearly 14,000 in Hernando; and more than 4,700 in Citrus. The figures are based on the number of officers assigned to each county.

Environmental advocates said they were appalled at the philosophy expressed in the document, which was prepared over the summer by the Fish and Wildlife Service's Vero Beach office.

"That's a pretty alarming concept," said Eric Glitzenstein, a Washington attorney representing 18 environmental groups, including the Humane Society and the Save the Manatee Club, that have sued the federal government. The plaintiffs got the document as part of a Freedom of Information Act request connected to the lawsuit.

For more than a decade, state officials have been prodding coastal counties to create manatee protection plans that would detail where docks, marinas and boat ramps could be built, as well as mandate slow-speed zones, boater education and more enforcement to catch speeders. The idea was to steer large numbers of boats away from waters where manatees congregate, since boat collisions are a major factor in manatee injuries and deaths.

The Fish and Wildlife Service document "completely undercuts the whole premise of having counties develop manatee protection plans," Glitzenstein said. "The need to control the number of boats in manatee habitat is critical."

Jay Slack, field supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service Vero Beach office, defended the approach as "part of a healthy strategy" for balancing the need to protect manatees with the increasing demand for boat access to Florida's waterways.

However, he said, "I do see that development in certain areas needs to be thought about strongly."

Manatees have been listed as an endangered species since the 1970s, which provides them with protection under federal law. Among other things, the law says that before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can issue a permit allowing waterfront development, corps officials must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on the impact to manatees.

Last year, a coalition of environmental groups sued both federal agencies, contending the way they handled permits for such projects subjected manatees to deadly peril. At that point there were more than 800,000 registered boats in the state, up by more than 20,000 from the previous year.

By contrast, researchers counted 3,276 manatees statewide this year, about 600 more than ever before. As of mid-October, 271 have died. Manatee experts believe that if more than 10 percent die annually, the species is headed for extinction.

In January the environmental groups settled their lawsuit against the corps and wildlife agency. Under the settlement, some developers who wanted to build new marinas, piers or boat docks where manatees congregate were supposed to pay for stepped-up enforcement of boating regulations.

However, this summer the Fish and Wildlife Service dropped the pay-per-pier provision from its latest regulations in response to a successful push by Gov. Jeb Bush for increased state funding for enforcement of speed zones. Federal officials estimate that there is now one officer patrolling the state's waterways for every 1,356 boats.

Environmental advocates recently announced they believe the two federal agencies have violated the terms of the settlement and they will go back to court to get a judge to enforce it.

Glitzenstein predicted the 72-page internal document will provide ammunition for that attempt.

Protection slipping away

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, if enough officers are patroling to protect manatees, then it doesn't matter how many more boats cruise the state's waterways. The agency has calculated how many new boat slips could be built over the next 10 years:

Pinellas 26,764

Hillsborough 3,258

Pasco 22,109

Hernando 13,964

Citrus 4,771

Statewide 369,920