Weird Science, Bad Laws

Lead Line — April 2001

By Richard Thiel

Wierd Science, Bad Laws
Start with science and less intimidation.


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Things are heating up down in Florida, and I don’t mean climatologically. I refer to the subject of manatees. Some folks down there are claiming that the population of these placid mammals is declining so rapidly that extinction is imminent and people have to immediately stop building marinas and driving boats. Others say the reverse is true, that if manatee numbers keep increasing, there won’t be room in the waterways for fish or boat.

Being a resident of New York and an only occasional visitor to the Sunshine State, I’m not about to take a stand on either side of the issue. But that’s not to say I don’t have a couple of observations on how the controversy looks from 1,000 miles away.

After witnessing the way Floridians counted, recounted, and then didn’t recount votes during the last election, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that their manatee-counting system seems a bit unorthodox. But flying in circles above the warm-water outfalls of electrical generating stations while trying to ascertain a head count of constantly surfacing and diving slate-gray bodies seems to me to be a method designed to ensure inaccuracy. In an age where we not only know exactly how many gorillas there are in the jungles of Tanzania but how many molecules are on a strand of DNA, we should be able to devise something more reliable than a dizzy, airsick bureaucrat trying to tell one gray backside from another from a thousand feet away.

Then there’s enforcement. We all know that for some time Florida has had Manatee Zones in which boaters are required to slow down to minimize the chances of a manatee-motorboat collision. I actually violated (inadvertently, I assure you) such a zone five years ago, for which transgression I was hauled over by a Florida Marine Patrol boat and given a summons that cost me $25 and a 15-minute lecture by a stern-faced officer. I was embarrassed, and I learned to watch more carefully for both signs and creatures.

Things have apparently changed. Chip Shea, director of marketing for the Luhrs Marine Group, called me a while back in an Irish lather because he, too, had been nabbed for exceeding a Manatee Zone speed limit. Shea, who energetically maintained his innocence, was offended by how he had gotten his ticket. He apparently was busted by what I will call “undercover agents” and what he described as “three camoflaged kids in a Jon boat with a blue light that looked like it came from K-Mart.” As in my case, they wrote him a summons, but unlike mine, it was followed by a certified letter from James Pilgrim, Special Agent of the United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, announcing that the fine had quadrupled to $100.

Well, that really didn’t matter to Shea because he was going to have his day in court. The letter informed him that he was entitled to do just that, but went on to also admonish that “if you enter a guilty plea or are found guilty after trial, the maximum penalty you can be sentenced to includes a fine of up to $25,000 and/or six months imprisonment. You may also be placed on probation for up to five years.” Shea thought that just a tad Draconian. I pointed out that had he been smuggling in a few pounds of cocaine at the time, he probably would have received much milder treatment.

I believe most people want to see the manatee survive and prosper. The question is how to make that happen in a logical and sane manner, without destroying the sport of boating. I have no idea how Floridians will do that, but maybe they should start with a little more reliance on science and a little less on intimidation.

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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