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
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.