Manatees will begin swimming into the warm but hazardous waters of South Florida in the coming weeks, as boating restrictions take effect to protect them from collisions with hulls and propellers.
The migration season officially begins Tuesday and runs through March 31, the period during which watercraft speed restrictions take effect on canals, rivers and the Intracoastal Waterway.
The manatees, unaware of these dates, will arrive gradually over November and December as temperatures drop in their summer habitats of northern Florida and Georgia.
Broward County will see the first new boating restrictions for manatees since 1993, although most won't go into effect until signs go up in February or March.
The new restrictions would extend current weekend speed zones to seven days a week, create a no-entry zone at Port Everglades and impose a year-round slow-speed zone west of the Intracoastal and south of Dania Beach Boulevard.
The restrictions will add about 22 minutes to the boat ride down the Intracoastal Waterway.
In Palm Beach County, fewer law enforcement boats will be on the water to protect the manatees from speed-zone violators.
The County Commission cut the manatee protection budget from $1 million to $750,000, meaning boat patrols will be reduced from 2,285 hours to 1,714 hours, according to Paul Davis, the county's manatee program coordinator.
That upsets manatee advocates, since the program was mandated by the state as part of a 2007 agreement to allow more docks and marinas to be built in Palm Beach County.
"So much of the plan was based on the ability to do the enforcement and have that presence on the water," said Katie Tripp, a director for the Save the Manatee Club. "All the yachts are making their way south, and all the manatees are making their way south."
Carol Knox, biological administrator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said the agency will have to watch the impact of the cuts.
"What we need to do is check and see what it means on the ground," she said. "It's unfortunate but on the other hand lots of things are getting cut back."
The cutbacks will also reduce research and habitat protection. The county is discontinuing weekly aerial manatee surveys but will be conducting a speed-zone compliance survey to identify trouble spots and better target law enforcement.
Watercraft killed three manatees in Palm Beach County this year, as well as two each in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Statewide watercraft killed 77 manatees this year.
During the summer, just a few dozen or so of the endangered mammals choose to stay in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, with most heading to the less-crowded feeding grounds in the north. But in the winter, they pour into the region, in numbers that generally grow every year.
Last December, during one of their weekly aerial surveys, biologists in Broward County counted a record 1,022 manatees on a single day, the vast majority clustered around the county's two major power plants, said Pat Quinn, Broward's manatee coordinator.
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