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September 12, 2014  New Report: Fast-track Permit System for Watercraft Access Ignores Manatee Deaths, Speedily Approving Thousands of New Docks, Ramps

Florida manatee

Tampa Bay Times, September 12, 2014

What about the manatees? Group targets two U.S. agencies for dock permits
By Craig Pittman

An environmental group that frequently sues the government over endangered species issues has taken aim at the federal permitting of thousands of boat docks in Florida and how that affects manatees.

The Florida office of the Center for Biological Diversity contends that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service aren't keeping track of how many permits they approve for waterfront access throughout the state.

While a single dock providing a tie-up for one boat might not have much effect on the manatee population, "considered together, these projects are almost certainly increasing the risk of manatees being struck by watercraft," the center's report says.

The two agencies not only aren't considering the cumulative impact of docks they are approving, but "neither the corps nor the Fish and Wildlife Service appears to record how many watercraft access permits are issued in Florida," according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which has repeatedly sued federal agencies over endangered species issues since 1990.

Will the environmental group be suing over this? The center's Jacki Lopez wouldn't say.

Docks are a concern for manatee advocates because putting a new one into manatee habitat guarantees that at least one boat and maybe more will soon be rumbling by.

In 2009, a record 97 manatees were killed by boats, but that number has declined in the past five years to 73 last year. As of Sept. 5, the number killed by boats this year had reached 50. Biologists believe the decline in boat-related deaths happened in part because of the cost of boat fuel and new rules requiring boaters to slow down.

The corps is the agency in charge of approving dock permits under an 1899 law governing obstructions to navigable waterways. Corps spokeswoman Nancy Sticht said the agency developed its current permitting process in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Their goal is to avoid "take" of manatees, a term that means killing, injuring or even harassing the endangered marine mammals.

"We permit only those projects where take is not likely," Sticht said. "If it is determined that a take may be likely, we recommend the applicant modify the project.''

Boat dock permits have raised hackles for years.

In 2000, when a coalition of environmental groups led by the Save the Manatee Club sued state and federal agencies for failing to protect manatees, as required by law, the docks issue proved the most contentious.

In settling the lawsuit in 2001, federal officials promised to come up with a way to deal with the cumulative effect of approving new docks, but they failed to produce one. Meanwhile, a public hearing on proposals to tighten the dock approval process drew 3,000 people angry with the Fish and Wildlife Service, which ultimately dropped the whole thing.

The center's 10-page report detailing problems with the dock permits comes as the federal wildlife agency is considering whether to knock manatees down a notch on the endangered species list. Manatees have been classified as endangered since 1967, but a libertarian group equally well known for its lawsuits, the Pacific Legal Foundation, contends that they should now be reclassified as threatened.

Last year, a record 829 manatees died, hundreds of them from a Red Tide bloom or a mysterious ailment in the Indian River Lagoon that may be tied to pollution. That's more than 15 percent of the estimated population.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton