Brevard County Commissioner: FWC Should Change 'Archaic' Manatee Speed Zone Laws

VIERA, Florida -- Brevard County Commissioner Curt Smith has placed on the agenda for the January 12, 2016 County Commission meeting a resolution requesting that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) review and amend the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act to remove manatee zone speed limits in some parts of the Indian River Lagoon in order to restore water sports areas and reasonable speed channels.

"During the past 10 years the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act appears to have been saddled with archaic, unproven, and often disproven requirements that focus too much effort on speed zones and permitting, and too little on population assessment, habitat improvement, and rescue and rehabilitation," Smith wrote in his proposal. "The existing law has become a hindrance to effective manatee management. With the rebounding of the manatee population, it is important to establish and evaluate scientific data concerning the overall health of the lagoon." 

If the FWC doesn't amend the the Florida Manatee Act, Smith would want the County Commission to enact "... a county ordinance that law enforcement officials within this jurisdiction shall no longer enforce either state or federal speed restrictions that are not approved by the Local Rule Review Committee."

The manatee count on Florida's East Coast has more than doubled in the last eight years from 1,414 in 2007 to 3,333 in 2015, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission's annual survey.

Many Brevard County waterfront property owners, boaters, and anglers blame the effect of the increased manatee population for the Indian River Lagoon's plight, especially when it comes to the inability of seagrass to regrow after the 2011-2012 Superbloom die off.  

That's because an 800 to 1,200 pound adult sea cow can eat up 10% to 15% of its body weight daily in aquatic vegetation which mostly consists of seagrass. According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Manatee Recovery Plan, manatees sometime graze on seagrass which leaves the possibility for regrowth - but manatees also "root" seagrass - meaning the entire plant is pulled and the underwater sediment is disturbed.  

In addition to food for manatees, seagrass supports the food web in the Indian River Lagoon which includes juvenile fish, sea turtles, dolphins, the American Bald Eagle, migratory birds, pelicans and other aquatic birds. Smith wants the County Commission to recognize "... the pressing need to ensure the health and sustainability of the Indian River Lagoon and for the survival of all the creatures that call it home."

For the fist time in the decades-long debate between manatee activists and the boating community, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) acknowledged that the increased manatee population does have an effect on nutrient load and seagrass loss in the Indian River Lagoon following a Brevard Times investigation in 2014.

"At the time the seagrass TMDLs were developed [in 2009], manatees were not considered as major nutrient contributors to the Indian River Lagoon because not all the data needed to quantify the manatee nutrient contribution were available.  It is worth noting that manatees have been part of the Indian River Lagoon ecosystem for a long time," FDEP stated in an email to Brevard Times.

"Based on the Department’s Nutrient and Dissolved Oxygen TMDLs for the Indian River Lagoon and Banana River Lagoon report (FDEP, 2009), the long-term annual average TN [Total Nitrogen] and TP [Total Phosphorous] loads entering the Indian River Lagoon system are about 1511 tons and 216 tons, respectively.  The 25 to 109 tons of TN and 2 to 7 tons of TP contributed by manatees only account for about 1.7% to 6.7% of TN loads and 0.7% to 3.0% of TP loads entering the Indian River Lagoon system."

"The Brevard County Manatee Protection Plan and protection zones promulgated by the Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2003 have not been reviewed or updated to reflect significant scientific and economic information," Smith wrote in his proposed resolution.  

Smith is not alone in questioning whether the regulations are based on science. In 2012, wildlife management officials recommended changing the status of manatees from endangered to threatened. But the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) did not act on that recomendation which prompted a lawsuit in 2014 from the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF).

The FWS just announced on Thursday that the West Indian manatee is proposed to be downlisted from endangered to threatened status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA defines an endangered species as one currently in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, and a threatened species as one that is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.  

Photo credit: FWC

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