By ERIC STAATS
May 2, 2008
Money to treat sick and injured manatees was saved from the budget ax in the final days of the legislative session this week in Tallahassee.
A bill to raise boat registration fees by about 55 percent to help manatee hospitals pay their tab for manatee rescue and rehabilitation cleared its final hurdle Thursday night.
The fee increase would raise $1.15 million to reimburse manatee hospital costs, replacing documentary stamp tax revenues that have paid for the program since 2000. The slowing economy had reduced that revenue stream, putting the reimbursement program in jeopardy.
The higher registration fees also will raise $3.9 million to keep 66 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission law enforcement officers on the job and $1.6 million for derelict vessel removal.
The bill passed the Senate by a 35-0 vote, and the House followed suit with a vote of 111-8. The bill now heads to Gov. Charlie Crist, who is expected to sign the bill into law.
The Save the Manatee Club and the Marine Industries Association of Florida, often at odds over the state’s manatee policies, came together to back the fee increase.
“Marine mammals will be better off. Boaters will be better off,” Save the Manatee Club Executive Director Pat Rose said.
Marine Industries group leader John Sprague said the registration fee increase would go toward protecting human lives and the environment.
“Loss of law enforcement just is not acceptable,” said Sprague, the group’s government affairs chairman.
Boat registration fees would increase from $3.50 to $5.50 for boats less than 12 feet in length up to an increase from $122.50 to $189.75 for boats 110 feet long or more.
Non-motorized boats are exempt from registration fees.
The fee increase took a tortuous path to passage.
State Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples, chairman of the Senate’s environmental preservation and conservation committee, shepherded the fee increase through the Senate. However, the House had blocked the increase.
The budget bill hashed out last weekend included the money for the reimbursement program, law enforcement officers and derelict vessel removal _ contingent on the fee increase passing the Legislature.
State Rep. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, and Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, expressed concern about increasing the fees but voted in favor of the bill after the money survived budget negotiations.
The money will be divided among the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Sea World in Orlando and the Miami Seaquarium. The three hospitals treat about 60 manatees a year, releasing about half of them back into the wild.
The Tampa zoo, where manatees rescued from Southwest Florida waters usually end up, would have had to turn away patients had the reimbursement money dried up, the zoo’s deputy director Craig Pugh said.
Three manatees from Collier County currently are patients at the zoo and are doing well, zoo spokeswoman Rachel Nelson said.
An orphaned manatee was rescued from a drainage ditch at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, and a baby manatee and its mother were rescued near Goodland, the apparent victims of a boat strike.
The zoo’s manatee hospital spends about $1 million a year, of which about a third is reimbursed by Florida, Pugh said.
He credited legislative leadership and diverse grassroots support for the bill’s passage.
“It shows that the communities in Florida, that we get it,” Pugh said.
Amber Rogers, zookeeper at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, takes care of a manatee that showed signs of being struck by a boat. Courtesy of Lowry Park Zoo.
WAYS YOU CAN HELP
If a manatee appears to be in trouble or is exhibiting unusual behavior, call the Wildlife Alert hotline: 1-888-404-FWCC (3922).
Please visit and support Save the Manatee Club.
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