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Speed zones to protect manatees go to a vote

New speed zones to protect Tampa Bay manatees top the agenda of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which meets at the Hilton St. Petersburg for three days starting today.

The commission is scheduled to vote today to approve the speed zones, which cover portions of the bay shoreline in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties.

In Pinellas, the proposed zones cover the area north of the Courtney Campbell Parkway to the Oldsmar area. In Hillsborough the zones include an area that stretches from Gandy Bridge to an area along the north side of Courtney Campbell Parkway, as well as a small area in Apollo Beach.

Manatee County has the most extensive and controversial zones, which include the Manatee River, Braden River, Bishop's Harbor, Palma Sola Bay and Anna Maria Sound.

The wildlife commission was originally scheduled to vote on the Tampa Bay zones last November, but postponed consideration because of an ongoing controversy over manatee science.

Between 1974 and 2003, more than 250 manatees have turned up dead in Tampa Bay, with 68 of those deaths from boats. Under a legal settlement with environmental groups in 2001, the wildlife agency promised to consider new regulations to slow down Tampa Bay's boaters _ but did not promise to approve anything.

Boaters contend the manatee population is increasing and thus manatees do not need further regulations to protect them. But studies by federal scientists found that in Southwest Florida, at least, the manatee population appears to be losing ground.

The meeting is scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. at the Hilton, 333 First St. S.