Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Keep manatees protected

 

OUR OPINION: Changes in Miami-Dade plan would put sea cows in jeopardy

HeraldEd@MiamiHerald.com

Before the Miami-Dade Commission considers changing one word of the county’s 1995 manatee-protection plan, it should consult with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which both must approve any revision.

County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, who represents downtown Miami, including much of the Miami River, where manatees congregate in winter, wants to loosen the plan’s restrictions against expanding the number of recreational docks and marinas in the city and elsewhere in the county.

On Thursday, Mr. Barreiro is bringing several overly broad proposals written by boaters, marine-industry groups and waterfront property owners to the commission’s land-use and development committee, of which he’s not a voting member.

Those wanting to loosen the restrictions point to the fact that deaths of manatees from boating collisions are down, and the overall manatee population is up. This is always the argument the boating industry and others use when they want to ease regulations that protect manatees in Florida. But it’s backward logic: The reason there are fewer boat-related deaths of the slow-moving sea cows is precisely because of the state’s regulations as they are written and enforced now. It’s wrongheaded to assume that a thriving manatee population should trigger increasing the risks to its members.

Miami-Dade’s manatee-protection plan, like those in other counties, was mandated by the two fish and wildlife agencies, and it took years for the county to get it done right.

But it’s working. Only two manatee deaths caused by collisions with boats were recorded in Miami-Dade last year. One has already been recorded in 2014.

Among the changes Mr. Barreiro proposes are increasing the number of boat slips fivefold at downtown commercial properties and threefold at some residential buildings; allowing water-taxi stops along parts of the Miami River; moving up the date to five years ago, from 1984, to grandfather in existing facilities that can rebuild docks without new permits; expanding commercial marinas in places less-frequented by manatees and at county-owned sites at Crandon and Matheson Hammock parks.

Cumulatively, these are huge changes that would make the plan a platform for the boating industry and property owners, not a protector of manatees.

In 2007, a committee convened to propose amendments to the county’s protection plan to be made in 2009. The committees’ recommendations were sent — on spec, so to speak — to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, which frowned upon several proposals, including one seeking a substantial increase in the number of docks in downtown Miami.

However, the Fish and Wildlife Commission astutely showed that it was aware of Miami’s growing downtown population by suggesting that some increase in docks might be acceptable. Some, not many.

That’s why the county should first consult with the Fish and Wildlife Commission and federal regulators before there’s any tinkering with the protection plan. Commissioner Barbara Jordan, a member of the land-use and development committee, said it best last month: “We’ve done a wonderful job of controlling the number of deaths, but I think that’s because we’ve had the restrictions in place.”

Exactly.

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