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New zones yield to manatees

To protect manatees, state wildlife commissioners Wednesday imposed new boating speed zones on several unregulated stretches of Tampa Bay's shoreline in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties.

The new zones will take effect as soon as state officials can post signs around the area, which will likely take place in early 2005.

The new state speed zones will free up dozens of dock-building permits that had been frozen along waterfront areas of Pinellas and Hillsborough. Federal officials said those areas were providing inadequate safeguards for manatees.

But the new zones in Manatee County do not go far enough, a federal wildlife official said, so more than a hundred dock permits there will remain in limbo. Some of those permits have been on hold for more than two years, but federal wildlife officials say they are bound to block those new permits by a law that forbids harming even a single manatee.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission spent more than six hours Wednesday thrashing out where and how much to regulate boaters in Tampa Bay. Boating rights advocates made it clear they were not happy with the new rules but did not object to them. Manatee activists wanted more areas included but said they were satisfied.

There was some grumbling. Ruskin resident Dan Lavalley said he opposes regulations that infringe on his recreation just to aid an animal.

"My rights as a citizen, a fisherman and a boater come first," Lavalley told wildlife commissioners. "We're not here to protect the rights of insects, birds and animals."

Florida Guides Association vice president Dave Markett, a Tampa resident, contended that waterways should not be restricted just because manatees had been injured and killed by boats there.

He compared the situation to highways where children had been hit by cars or trucks: "You don't close down a road just because a child got struck there."

Tampa Bay was targeted for new regulations because more than 300 manatees live there, nearly all of them with scars from being struck by boats.

"You are supposed to keep harmful collisions from occurring," environmental attorney Tom Reese, a St. Petersburg resident, told the commissioners. "There is a lot of damage being done by boats."

Since 1974, more than 250 manatees have turned up dead in Tampa Bay, with more than 60 of those deaths caused by boats. Tampa Bay's manatees are part of the Southwest Florida regional population group, which scientists think is in worse shape than the ones in the rest of the state.

The new regulations have been in the works since 2001, when the commission settled a lawsuit filed by a consortium of environmental and animal welfare groups on behalf of manatees, which have been on the federal endangered species list for more than 30 years.

The settlement has led to new boating restrictions on both coasts, and the commission's efforts to draw up those rules have been mired in controversy. Two years ago, the Legislature said any new manatee regulations had to be vetted by a committee of residents.

Tampa Bay's rules were the first to take that route. The committee members spent two months last year reviewing rules proposed by the wildlife commission's staff and then, after a raucous public hearing in Bradenton that drew 300 angry people, voted against nearly all of them. Instead, on a series of split votes, they repeatedly recommended the state do more to educate boaters, encourage voluntary slow-downs and let counties and cities take the lead on developing regulations.

In Pinellas, the new rules will establish a slow-speed zone near Safety Harbor from April 1 to Nov. 15, running from the Courtney Campbell Parkway to Oldsmar. The commission rejected a request from Pinellas officials to include the Lake Tarpon canal outfall and Mobbly Bay, pointing out that those areas had not been included in public notices.

Tampa will have a similar seasonal slow-speed zone along the northern edge of the Courtney Campbell Parkway. Rocky Point south to the Gandy Bridge will be slow speed year round.

In Apollo Beach the state created a seasonal idle speed area south of the Tampa Electric Co. power plant, and a slow speed zone next to it. The Little Manatee River would be classified a 25-mph zone, with a slow-speed area near the river's mouth.

Commissioners had the hardest time with the Manatee County zones, particularly in the Braden River, which female manatees use to give birth and nurse. River residents said they have complained about speeding boats since the 1960s, but county officials have done nothing to slow them down.

For Manatee County, commissioners came up with a patchwork of slow-speed zones, 25-mph zones and idle-speed zones, but left some areas unregulated to accommodate water skiers. They also approved exemptions designed to benefit residents of the historic Cortez fishing village.