Manatees: Betrayed by the Bushes

U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan reminded Department of the Interior attorneys that the agency is not "above the law" and twice ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to "show cause why they should not be held in contempt" for delaying a court ordered directive to implement new manatee protection zones in Florida.

After a two year holdup, another agreement finally was reached on manatee conservation between the Bush Administration and animal advocates including AWI on January 24, 2003. The Corps and FWS agreed to publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register to designate manatee protection areas in Florida's Caloosahatchee, St. Johns, and Halifax/Tomoka Rivers by March 31, 2003. These three rivers are considered vicinities of the highest annual manatee mortality in Florida. A final decision is due by July 31, 2003.

The deal could be positive if implemented properly. It requires that permanent signs or buoys be posted along these rivers informing the public of applicable speed and other restrictions to protect manatees.

It is doubtful, however, that boaters will adhere to posted warnings. Florida's waterways historically have been deathtraps for peaceful manatees who fall prey to speeding boats. In 2002, a record 95 manatees died in Florida because of reckless boaters.

Moreover, without sufficient on-water enforcement, speed signs are meaningless. FWS claims that it "plans to significantly increase the presence of Federal law enforcement officers on the water to ensure boater compliance with speed zones...." We hope they succeed.

Meanwhile, boaters' rights groups are selfishly fighting against manatee protection. Is this really an issue of "boaters' rights"? Mary Jo Melone, a St. Petersburg Times reporter, expresses disbelief in an article entitled, "The 'rights' of a few don't do right by manatees."

She writes, "I'm really struggling with the idea that this so-called right to the water (or to make a living from it) carries more weight than my right, and your right, to live in a state with a well-managed natural environment."

The jury is still out as to whether the government will meet its deadlines and fulfill its requirements. The Bush Administrations, both at the federal level and at the state level in Florida under Governor Jeb Bush, have a bad history of selling manatees down the river. Our lawyers are standing by.

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