A Manatee, a Plan, a Canal . . .

You might think the manatee, that lovable blob of seagoing tranquility, would be the creature least likely to provoke adults to fits of rage. Susan Markley, Dade's top biologist, knows otherwise.

Four and a half years ago, when Metro-Dade drafted new speed limits designed to reduce the number of manatees killed in collisions with boat hulls and propellers, the proposal met with incendiary opposition. Boaters felt their rights were being violated; boat manufacturers feared the go-slow rules would hurt the industry. Two public workshops regarding the speed limits "erupted into chaos," recalls Markley, chief of the natural resources division of Metro's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), who coordinated the hearings. Opponents hectored her and left expletive-filled messages on her answering machine. Former Metro commissioner Harvey Ruvin, who had spoken out in favor of the boating restrictions, received an anonymous phone call at home threatening him with physical violence.

The speed issue was part of a larger effort that dated back to 1989, when then-governor Bob Martinez ordered thirteen Florida counties to draft manatee-protection plans. Despite the opposition, Dade's speed limits ultimately were approved by the governor and cabinet. But the remainder of the plan -- recommendations regarding educational programs, law enforcement, habitat protection, and limitations on land development and the construction of boat facilities -- has yet to be finalized. Although those issues were discussed at public hearings in 1992, boating and marine-industry lobbyists unhappy with the plan as written managed to persuade Metro-Dade to establish a citizens' committee to review and rewrite it.

Three years later, the thirteen-member citizens' committee has finally completed its draft of the Dade County Manatee Protection Plan. And during the past two weeks, Susan Markley has presented the revised plan in four public workshops. This time she brought along a police escort.

So far, however, intervention hasn't been necessary; the public forums have been sparsely attended and relatively civil, a fact Markley attributes in part to the existence of the citizens' committee, which comprises representatives from marine and boating interests, as well as environmentalists.

There have been complaints, particularly about a section of the plan that requires the installation of three-foot-wide "fenders" on docks and sea walls along the Miami River. The purpose: to prevent manatees from being crushed between boats and bulkheads. (Alternatively, the plan recommends cantilevered bulkheads that would permit manatees an escape route as boats dock.) Shippers maintain that the fenders will render the narrowest parts of the river unnavigable for more than one boat at a time.

At a public workshop at the Crowne Plaza Hotel this past Wednesday, Jordan Monocandilos, owner of Bernuth Marine Shipping, one of the Miami River's largest ship terminals, strode to the podium and proceeded to assail the fender requirement. "I have been approached several times by people from Tampa, Port Manatee, and Port Everglades to move my business there," Monocandilos declared to the DERM biologist and about 50 others who had gathered for the workshop. "I only pray and hope that I won't have to do that." Arguing that the fenders would "extinguish" the cargo business along the river, the shipping executive threatened to file a lawsuit "worse than the O.J. trial."

With considerably more restraint, Fran Bohnsack, executive director of the Miami River Marine Group (an organization of cargo carriers), requested an exemption from the fender rule along a narrow, 1600-foot section of the river. "The river is already burdened by many constraints that limit the cargo-carrying industry," said Bohnsack, a member of the citizens' review committee. "Adding another constraint, particularly one that is unjustifiable on the basis of manatee mortality data, is not good government policy."

Markley asserts that without fenders, the river is already too narrow for the largest vessels to pass two abreast. As for the mortality figures, Metro scientists have recovered five manatee carcasses from the Miami River. Two likely had been crushed to death, according to Markley, who cautions that mortality figures can be very misleading. A carcass might drift away, she points out, or an injured manatee might swim off after a collision and die elsewhere.

Among the plan's other significant recommendations is a strategy to adapt floodgates and drainage apparatus in Dade's canal system. These steps are already under way: The South Florida Water Management District, which operates the structures, is equipping gates with pressure-sensitive devices that will cause them to open if they are about to close on an object. The district also has installed barriers in two drainage canals at Miami International Airport in order to prevent manatees from entering storm-water culverts. State records indicate that at least 46 manatees have been crushed in water-management facilities in the past two decades.

The plan also proposes restrictions on the location of new marinas, ramps, and boat-storage areas, recommending against development of new facilities near canals, tributaries, and shallows rich in sea grass --A habitats where the animals frequently feed, rest, mate, nurse, shelter, or travel.

The proposal would allow for the construction of docks at single-family residences anywhere in Dade County and would permit the expansion of existing boating facilities.

The restrictions, Markley says, won't crimp recreational boating in Dade. "Some individual property owners who may have been hoping to build a marina or dry-storage facility in an area zoned for commercial use may not be able to do that now," she explains. "Overall, though, from a boater's perspective, we don't feel there will be an impact on boating. It's going to affect where boat slips go, but it's not going to affect the total number." And with the passage of the plan, Markley points out, a five-year-old partial moratorium on the construction of new marinas in Dade will be lifted.

David Ray, a recreational-boating businessman who was on the citizens' committee, doesn't find the future so rosy. "We're all right now, but there will be a bind in the very near future," declares Ray, a board member of the Marine Industries Association of Greater Miami. "If you're a millionaire, you'll have a place to put your boat in. But the average boater is not going to be able to afford [marina dockage]."

Still, Ray is resigned to the necessity for mutual concessions regarding the plan, which DERM will forward to the Metro Commission for approval and then to the state for final implementation. "I hate it. The manatee people probably hate it," Ray grumbles. "But if there's ever a good compromise, it's when both sides hate it. There has been no plan in the state of Florida that has been so restrictive. But it could've been worse.