So protected are the gentle sea cows that roam the waters off Biscayne Bay that regulations have thwarted the marine industry’s growth and frustrated developers’ plans to build widespread docks for recreational boaters.
At least that’s the argument from boaters and industry groups seeking to loosen restrictions that have been in place for almost two decades to guard the endangered Florida manatee.
They have a powerful supporter: Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, who has proposed revising the county’s manatee-protection plan to allow for more commercial and residential docks along key waterways.
“Where our plan was very rigid before, this one’s more flexible,” Barreiro said from the commission dais in January. “I want to give more encouragement to more boat ownership and more marine use.”
The revisions, scheduled for a public hearing Thursday, are not only opposed by environmental activists, who contend the new rules would put more boats on the water that could collide with the slow-moving mammals. Miami-Dade’s own regulators object to some of the proposed changes, which Barreiro concedes were based on recommendations from the marine and development industries.
“You’re trying to tell the state to make the boundaries less strict. That’s not what the data says,” said Lee Hefty, director of the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management, or DERM. “It would probably be a hard sell.”
Any changes commissioners make would then need approval from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“In a perfect world we would have worked on a draft before it goes to the County Commission,” said Carol Knox, section leader for the state agency’s imperiled-species management section.
Her office has not vetted Barreiro’s recommendations, but, Knox added, “We’ve worked with the county folks a long time, so they’re usually a good predictor for how we think.”
At issue is a portion of the county’s 1995 manatee-protection plan — which was mandated by the state and took several years to draft — that spells out how land should be developed in areas traveled by manatees. Other plan sections, such as those setting slow-speed or no-wake zones for boaters, would remain unchanged.
Among the main proposals are:
Several groups have backed some of the revisions, including the Miami River Commission, an advisory group that reviews development along the waterway, and the Miami River Marine Group, which represents trade interests.
Both organizations and their supporters say they consider themselves environmental stewards and care about manatees but also want to strike a balance to promote the marine industry and boating. They point to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, where local governments have made it a priority to build docks to attract people to the waterfront.
“Many of our recommendations are things that we pulled off other plans up and down the East Coast,” said T. Spencer Crowley, an attorney who sits on the Florida Inland Navigation District board, which funds improvements along the Intracoastal Waterway. “It’s just confusing to me why things can be included in those plans but not in the Miami-Dade plan.”
Easing manatee-protection rules along the river and downtown would “activate the waterfront,” said Jose Goyanes, a shop and restaurant owner who sits on the board of the city’s Downtown Development Authority. “And it will help business.”
Gleaming new residential condos have gone up without accompanying boat space, Goyanes said. Restaurants have been unable to offer boaters a place to stop to grab a bite.
But not all waterways are the same, regulators and environmental activists say. Manatees must navigate busy boat traffic to the warm Miami River waters from seagrass feeding areas on the bay. And docks and boats block manatees’ access to the surface when they need to come up for air.
Unlike Broward, Miami-Dade does not cap the number of boat slips countywide. It allows an unlimited number of them, but only in areas where manatees don’t gather — on the western shores of Miami Beach, for example.
“Miami-Dade’s plan is considered one of the best in the state,” said Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation for Florida’s Save the Manatee Club. “That doesn’t mean that it’s Draconian. I travel all over the state dealing with manatee-protection plan issues, and you guys have the most developed county.”
She called the proposed revisions “awful and unacceptable.”
No one argues that manatees are not doing better these days. The population statewide has at least tripled over the past few decades — a rebound that has the federal government considering upgrading their classification to threatened from endangered. But last year, Florida still saw the highest number of manatee deaths ever recorded: 829, according to the state.
Many of those deaths were due to factors other than boat strikes, such as cold stress and toxic marine algae known as red tide. The number of watercraft-related deaths statewide in 2013 was 72, down from an average of 88 in previous years.
Miami-Dade registered two vessel-related deaths last year — less than 3 percent of the total such deaths in the state. One has already been registered this year, as of the end of January.
That is very few to justify the current, stringent regulations, proponents of Barreiro’s revisions said the first time the commissioner’s plan was publicly discussed two months ago. The hearing drew numerous Miami River property owners where were asking for relief and who had made some of the recommendations to the commissioner.
But a majority of the commission’s five-member land-use and development committee said it still had questions about the proposal. The same committee will take up the plan again Thursday.
“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,” Commissioner Barbara Jordan said in January.
DERM points to a data trend that could keep the state and federal governments from approving some of Barreiro’s revisions: Since 1995, more than 60 percent of all manatees killed by boats in Miami-Dade were recovered within a five-mile radius of the lower Miami River — compared to 38 percent before that year. That means there were fewer recorded deaths before the protections were in place, but both boat traffic — and the number of manatees in the state — have increased since then.
“You might as well throw the data out the window and say, ‘OK, let’s add more boats in the area where manatees are being killed,’ ” Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, told commissioners in January.
Barreiro said part of his frustration is that the county did not move quickly enough on the recommendations from a committee convened in 2007 that proposed amendments to the manatee-protection plan in 2009.
DERM sent the recommendations informally to regulators, as is normal practice. The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission took issue with several of them, including one that asked for a significant increase in the number of docks downtown. (A limited increase might be OK, it said.)
The county was working on changes when Barreiro, whose district includes downtown and much of the river, pushed for a resolution.
“I can no longer wait,” he said.