Sunday, January 11, 2009

Battle brewing over new manatee-friendly regulations

Battle brewing over new manatee-friendly regulations
By Brian Liberatore
Ft. Myers News-Press

Dock builders say new manatee-friendly regulations in the works could put them out of business.

But environmentalists pushing for the rules change say it's long overdue, especially in a region that leads the state in propeller-related manatee deaths.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service, armed with a lengthy bureaucratic process, will have to find a compromise.

“This could put a lot of people out of business,” said Jack Ortaga, picking up a well-worn petition a the desk in his small Cape Coral office. The petition, addressed to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, aims to expand what is defined as critical habitat for manatees. The authors of the petition, the DC-based Wildlife Advocacy Project and a handful of national nonprofits, say the change is critical to the manatees' future.

But the right thing for the manatees may be the wrong thing for Ortaga.

He says expanding the protected area would add layers of bureaucracy stretching the amount of time to get a permit to months or years instead of weeks. A half-year wait, he said, would sound the death knell for marine contractors in a down economy.

“A lot of people move to Cape Coral to be in this boating community,” Ortega said. “Now here we again with this save the manatee.”

Proponents of the petition say waterways the federal government now deems as critical manatee habitat are woefully outdated. The petition wants the agency to update what's protected based on where the manatees are now — not where they were 30 years ago.

“In our point of view good science is better than bad science,” said Eric Glitzenstein, the president of the Wildlife Advocacy Project. “Don't base (regulations) on outdated notions of what manatees use or don't use.”

The argument echoes a battle from four years ago when manatee concerns prompted the federal government to shut down new dock construction around Cape Coral for two and a half months. The government lifted that moratorium after emergency manatee protection zones were installed.

“A lot of people went out of business during that moratorium,” Ortaga said. And that was when the city was issuing more 1,000 dock permits each year.

The number of new dock, seawall and boatlift permits in 2008 dropped below 500. The decline had forced Tolles Con-Crete Seawalls to fold after 50 years in Cape Coral. Honc Marine Contracting last month bought the company and absorbed its staff.

A moratorium now, Ortaga said, would spell the end to most marine construction businesses in Cape Coral.

“It's not like there's anything else to fall back on,” he added.

Two years after the moratorium was lifted, the Army Corps of Engineers handed over permitting of residential docks to the city in 2006. Wait times on permits under the Corps were around six months, Ortaga said. The city had them stamped in two weeks. Four years ago, when the Corps and Fish and Wildlife had to sign off on permits, the wait could extend to two years.

With the new regulations, Ortaga fears the permits would again wind up in the hands of federal officials tacking months, possibly years, onto the process.

Longer permit times, are a possibility, said Patti Thompson an independent consultant and biologist in central Florida.

But at stake is the future of Florida's biodiversity. “Manatees are so much a part of Florida's biological legacy,” Thompson said. “I think this critical habitat designation is not going to have that much of an affect on the continued build out. I think the economy will.”

The designation means the permitting agency, which could again be the Army Corps of Engineers, will have to take into account where manatees live and what exists in those areas that helps them survive - be it vegetation, topography or the flow of water.

Because the manatees are on the endangered species list, federal officials are supposed to doing that now, Glitzenstein said.

“When there's some sort of federal action involved, that federal agency should have the most scientific and up-to-date information,” he added.

Lee County leads state in manatee deaths
  Ft. Myers News-Press
Ships blamed for manatee deaths
  Florida Times-Union
Wakulla Springs welcomes return of the manatees
  Tallahassee Democrat
Survey Says: Threats Still Loom for Manatees
  Save the Manatee Club Op-Ed

If a manatee appears to be in trouble or is exhibiting unusual behavior, call the Wildlife Alert hotline: 1-888-404-FWCC (3922).
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