U.S. Fish and Wildlife wonıt approve them in areas dangerous for manatees
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said Friday that they wonıt approve new boat dock permits in some areas of Lee County that donıt have adequate protection for manatees.
Those areas include the Caloosahatchee River, Ten Mile Canal, Mullet Creek and all of Cape Coral.
The governmentıs decision could affect the owners of thousands of waterfront homes, especially in booming Cape Coral, which has 400 miles of fresh and saltwater canals and 27 miles of shoreline.
³This is serious,² said Tony Penn, who has been waiting three months for a permit to build a dock at his Southwest 28th Place home. ³The issue of the manatee suit could be disastrous to Florida, not to mention Lee County and Cape Coral.²
Jeff Weller, a biologist with U.S. Fish, said that the number of watercraft-related manatee deaths in Lee County this year is a big reason why the permits are being refused.
There have been eight manatee deaths in Lee County this year, five caused by boats.
The stateıs 325 manatee deaths in 2001 was the highest since 1996. Lee County had the highest mortality rate of any other Florida county; 51 manatees died here last year.
At issue is a settlement agreement to a lawsuit filed in 2000 by the Save the Manatee Club and other environmental groups. The agreement requires U.S. Fish and Wildlife to come up with ³an implementation strategy to protect the manatee,² said Judith Valee, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.
Part of that plan is a map of Lee County that shows an area of inadequate manatee protection. Inadequate protection refers to a lack of proper speed zones, manatee safe areas and insufficient law enforcement to protect manatees, Valee said.
Only new boat docks are affected by the ban. Homeowners can rebuild existing docks or make modifications.
The refusal to allow dock permits was news to Cape Coral officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
³Weıve heard that theyıre looking at certain areas in Lee County,² said Ron Silver, chief of the west permit branch for the corps. ³But thereıs nothing official.²
Silver said his office has noticed that some permit applications were not being returned from U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
The Army Corps issues the federal approval to build a dock after favorable review from U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Environmental Protection. That approval is required prior to submitting for a dock permit in Lee County.
Cape Coral doesnıt require the federal approval to get a new dock permit, but it is required prior to construction, Silver said.
Cape Coral spokeswoman Connie Barron said the city hasnıt heard anything from U.S. Fish and Wildlife and is still issuing dock permits. ³Weıll still continue to issue permits until we hear from someone.²
This is the second time in 10 months that Cape Coral has had to battle with federal agencies for the right to approve permits.
In June, Army Corps officials informed the city that it did not have jurisdiction and only the Corps would issue permits.
However, the city continued to issue permits but warned homeowners that they still needed federal approval.
Marine contractor Mike McCartney, owner of American Marine Construction of South Florida Inc., said the permit holdup hasnıt affected his business yet, but heıs wary of the future.
He added that heıs frustrated with the process and getting a straight answer from anyone involved in the permit process is nearly impossible.
³Itıs confusing and itıs meant to be,² he said. ³Itıs really not a manatee issue, itıs a growth issue.²
Valee agreed, to an extent.
³Basically docks have both a direct and an indirect affect on manatees,² she said. ³More boat traffic is an indirect affect and that causes more manatee deaths.²
Sixteen of the 53 manatees that died in Florida waters in January this year were victims of boating accidents, according to wildlife officials who said unseasonably warm weather drove the animals from protected areas.
When the ban will be lifted is anyoneıs guess.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials couldnıt give an estimate as to when permits will be allowed, said Bert Byers.
³We are continuing to negotiate with the plaintiff and the interveners,² he said. ³We obviously want to come to some sort of an agreement that we can all live with.²
Lee County officials are also hoping for a swift conclusion to the dock permit saga.
³Itıs been real frustrating,² said Rick Joyce, deputy director of planning for Lee County. ³We just want to get a handle on it.²
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