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November 28, 2001

War has been declared on the humble sea cow

`We need to define just how many manatees you need.'' That revelatory remark was made two years ago by a fellow named Wade Hopping.

He's a big-time Tallahassee lobbyist who was speaking on behalf of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which represents makers of boats and outboard engines.

Asserting that Florida's manatee population was ``stable and growing,'' Hopping suggested that the mammal be removed from the endangered-species list.

Incredibly, both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission now seem to be sliding in that direction.

War quietly has been declared on the humble sea cow. Influential special interests fear that their profits will be threatened by regulations designed to protect the hulking, easygoing animal.

Last month, the Coastal Conservation Association disgraced its own name by petitioning the state to demote the manatee from ``endangered'' to ``threatened.''

The CCA claims to stand for the views of thousands of recreational anglers, but, on this issue, the group is hauling water for boating and sportfishing suppliers.

It's part of an anti-manatee backlash that began after authorities decided to beef up efforts to protect the species. Hammered by lawsuits from environmental groups, state and federal agencies agreed to devise broader regulations.

Among them: More low-speed boating zones in areas of heavy manatee activity and the creation of several manatee sanctuaries where human activity would be banned or limited.

Another controversial provision would have imposed special fees for new docks, the revenues to be used for enforcing manatee laws. That plan was scrapped after an outcry from developers of marinas.

The new proposals have earned the manatees some prickly enemies: Boaters who don't like to be told to slow down.

Fishermen who don't like to be told where to fish.

Trade groups whose members sell fast boats and fishing tackle.

While the efficacy of some manatee protection measures can and should be debated, it's ridiculous to argue that the critter is no longer endangered.

Florida has more than 800,000 registered boats, and only about 3,200 sea cows. Even when you're lucky enough to see one in the wild, it's usually striped with prop scars.

Advocates of ``delisting'' cite an increase in the manatees counted during aerial surveys. They say that the population now has reached a level at which strict regulations are no longer necessary.

In other words, there are enough manatees swimming around that we can start killing them off again with impunity.

The Fish and Wildlife Service recently bucked its own scientists by approving a plan that would allow the delisting of manatees even if their population weren't growing.

The FWS said that an annual mortality of 200 to 300 adult males is acceptable (to all, presumably, except the doomed manatees). Meanwhile, state wildlife officials also have agreed to reassess the species' designation as endangered.

The irony is, there wouldn't be any sea cows left to argue about if they hadn't been protected for the last three decades. No less important than the laws and the speed zones is the heightened public awareness that resulted.

Today the manatee is a beloved Florida icon, celebrated with license plates, Jimmy Buffett tunes and cuddly stuffed toys. Homely as they are, sea cows are adored by tourists and natives alike.

Idling my boat through a channel instead of racing full throttle is a small sacrifice for the thrill of sharing the water with these ancient and fascinating behemoths.

In 1999, the year that glib Mr. Hopping and the marine manufacturers declared war, 82 manatees were killed by boaters -- the most ever. During the last 23 months, 150 more have perished by propeller.

Such sad accidents are inevitable. Sea cows go wherever they please, and it's impossible to protect them all the time. That doesn't mean that we should stop trying.

Despite what lobbyists say, saving a few more manatees won't endanger Florida's huge marine industry. With input from anglers and boaters, as well as biologists, it shouldn't be hard to come up with a sensible long-term plan.

How many manatees is enough? What an insipid question.

It's more appropriate to ask just how many Wade Hoppings we need.


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