Pinellas County is on Tampa Bay, Florida. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is proposing a bunch of new manatee speed zones in Pinellas, with the goal of reducing the number of manatees struck and killed by boats. This concern first emerged in 2007. It took seven years for FWC staff even to distribute a set of draft rules. Seven years. Without spoiling the outcome (OK, we’re opposed to the new zones), readers need to realize that all this effort, put toward something that just plain is not needed, is due to one big problem: the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act were written decades ago, and are oftentimes — thisentimes — detrimental, even downright dangerous.
The Fish & Wildlife Commission has almost unlimited power to regulate boats. And because its power is unlimited, it is always fearful of being sued for not doing enough. (Yes, I even have that in writing from them!) In this case, the Federal Fish & Wildlife Service issued “comments” to the Army Corps, which issues permits for marina and dock construction. Based on the negative comments (in 2007), the Corps denied the permits. The comments kicked the ball downstairs to FWC to do something about it. So FWC — after seven years — is proposing more speed zones.
The trouble is — a lot has changed in seven years.
This piece was written on behalf of Citizens For Florida’s Waterways, a boating group whose membership includes a bunch of bonafide Cape Kennedy rocket scientists.
CFFW has repeatedly stated, where sound sciences leads, it will follow. The following four objections are firmly grounded in science:
1) The original reason given to support the need for more zones in Pinellas County has been disproven.
A 2007 Biological Opinion from the Fish & Wildlife Service, which led to Army Corps denial of several Pinellas County permits applications, concluded that since the manatee population in Southwest Florida appeared to be declining, adding more boat slips in Pinellas would adversely impact the manatee. FWS’ Dave Hankla opined that until more speed zones were added, permits would not be issued.
That was seven and a half years ago.
Nothing was done until last year, 2014, when FWC staff advised Pinellas County to form a Local Rule Review Committee to consider more zones.
But, before the Commission convened the local rule review committee, new information released by FWS and the US Geological Survey showed that the Southwest manatee stock is NOT in decline. It’s growing rapidly. Indeed, manatees are growing rapidly in all four Florida stocks, and are being seen much more frequently beyond Florida, too.
The 2013 Runge, et. al. findings project a zero possibility of manatee extinction in 100 years, and show that boat mortality is – these are our words – so insignificant a threat that they are a distraction from what we should be doing to ensure a healthy and sustainable manatee population.
CFFW asked the US Geological Survey author, at a Manatee Forum meeting, if the improvements were because of better protection. He said, NO. It’s because of better data and methods, not better protection. Moreover, he said that if the current methods and data had been available in 2007, the results would have been positive back then, too.
Following the release of this new and better information, the appropriate conclusion should have been for FWS to issue a new Biological Opinion finding there would be no “adverse affect”. FWC’s plan to create more speed zones is an unnecessary and inappropriate action, given the new data showing the Southwest population is not in decline.
2) FWC data is based on a flawed approach that ignores and violates the long-established Law of Large Numbers, a fundamental principle for research. In simple terms, FWC’s data plays fast and loose with statistics, using small numbers to generate dire-sounding percentage-based findings.
Jacob Bernoulli first described the LLN as so simple that even the stupidest man instinctively knows it is true (Ars Conjectandi: Usum & Applicationem Praecedentis Doctrinae in Civilibus, Moralibus & Oeconomicis, 1713, Chapter 4).
FWC attempted to show that watercraft mortality in Pinellas County – more specifically, Western Pinellas County – is rising at a faster rate than in other counties. However, the sample size – a handful of manatee mortalities – is so small that no trend can be established, and no comparison to other, larger, samples, can be made. FWC has not established a viable reason to implement more zones.
Science strongly cautions against the use of rates and percentages based on small numbers. The National Center for Health Statistics advises against the use of statistics based on a numerator of less than 20, which is consistent with standard CDC (Centers for Disease Control) practice. Moreover, it’s recommended that rates (percentages) be suppressed when using small numbers, to avoid the kind of statistical inflation that happens when a number increases from 1 to 2 (that’s 100%!). A good review of these issues is available for the Washington State Department of Health and from CDC.
FWC ‘s report authors never heard about the LLN, or ignored it.
3) There is no good evidence to suggest more zones will be effective in reducing watercraft mortality, nor any evidence to support the premise that a reduction in watercraft is needed.
When speed zones are proposed, the result has always been the addition of new zones. As manatee population continues to grow (doubling every 12 years), more and more zones follow. Several years ago, CFFW, working with then-Executive Director Ken Haddad, asked FWC staff to develop a “black box” that would help inform decisions on where zones should be located – where they are most likely to have a positive effect. The result was the “fast overlap” maps used in Pinellas and elsewhere. (When this method was used to review changes in zones proposed by CFFW in 2004, and supported by a Brevard County resolution that was co-authored by CFFW and the manatee club, this rather primitive tool clearly showed that several Brevard zones were unnecessary; nonetheless, the zones remain in place.)
Haddad was dissatisfied with this new tool, as were we, given that it uses agglomerated data that seeks to put manatees and “fast boats” in proximity, but ignores both time and water depth. That is to say, the boat may have been in the area at 5AM, and the manatee at 6PM, yet the “dots” coincide. The manatee may be in deep water (and thus able, according to peer-reviewed studies, to dive safely beneath recreational watercraft), but the charts are only two-dimensional, ignoring depth.
We have recommended improvements to the model several times, but without success. The existing situation is that we have no goal for the new zones, other than a hope that more zones will somehow reduce watercraft-related mortality.
Moreover, the very process of selecting zones is at best part scientific, and part political. There is give and take.
In its review, the local rule review committee voted against some zones in channels. FWC staff’s proposal includes those zones in channels, including another half mile of the intracoastal.
Because FWC has not developed a reasonable tool for determining zone placement, and has not developed a means to evaluate the effectiveness of its zones, we are left with a question: what possible evidence is there that the proposed zones will reduce watercraft mortality? And, if the LRRC recommendation was allowed to stand – no zones in channels – how would that change the effectiveness of the zones? We don’t know, because FWC does not have the ability to tell us, other than to opine that more zones is always better (which, in itself, is often not true).
FWC and FWS admit they do not know if speed zones work, or what zones are most likely to reduce mortality. But, even if zones do work, what’s being demanded here in Pinellas County will reduce watercraft mortality by one per year at the most.
At a minimum, FWC staff should abide by the LRRC determinations and not add more zones than the LRRC supported.
4) Even if the Commission establishes more zones, there is no guarantee that any of the denied permits – or future permit applications – will be approved. CFFW has asked for that assurance, in writing. It has not been forthcoming.
In discussions with FWS, the issue seems to be that a “carte blanche” letter of support could open the gates for other applications that may not be advisable. This avoids the core issue: FWS should provide a letter listing those permits that will be released if the rule is approved; a list of those that may be approved; and a list of those that will not.
In conclusion: the original justification for these zones is disproven. We don’t know that these zones will be effective. Even if the potential decrease in mortality is achieved (one fewer death per year), the net benefit will have no effect on a manatee population that is doubling every 12 years already! And we have no assurance that permits will be released.
FWC should advise FWS that no additional zones are necessary, and that permits withheld now for more than seven years – seven years – should be released.