In a 117-page final order, Administrative Law Judge Fred Buckine dismissed numerous challenges to proposed revisions to manatee protection zone rules for Brevard County. The judge ruled that proposed amendments to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission manatee protection rules are valid exercises of the FWC's authority. The ruling clears the way for additional boat-speed regulations in other areas of the state inhabited by large numbers of manatees.

Groups challenging the rules (petitioners, which include boaters, a boater's rights organization and a boat manufacturer, have a right to appeal the ruling to a district court of appeal within 30 days.

"The rules will become effective and enforceable, even if the challengers appeal Judge Buckine's ruling," FWC attorney Ross Burnaman said.

In September 2000, the FWC began the rule-making process for Brevard County and conducted a series of public meetings to gather input from local residents and businesses. The following March, the FWC voted to proceed with specific rule revisions after making minor amendments to staff recommendations.

Two months later, opponents filed three administrative rule challenges to be heard by an administrative law judge. The judge consolidated the three cases for hearing.

During September and October 2001, the judge considered 11 days of testimony and thousands of pages of exhibits.

The final ruling said "The record in this proceeding, including testimony and documentary evidence, supports the validity of the Proposed Rule as to each challenge raised by Petitioners."

The FWC's Bureau of Protected Species Management, within the agency's Office of Environmental Services, recommends manatee rule revisions to the seven FWC Commissioners. The Commission is responsible for adopting rules to protect manatees from being struck or harassed by motorboats and to prevent destruction of manatee habitats such as sea grass beds.

"The Commission plans to complete the rule making process expeditiously, so the revised manatee protection zones can help protect manatees and their habitats," OES director, Brad Hartman, said. "This decision reaffirms the basic approach we have been using in development of rules for 16 additional areas around the state. We will move forward with these proposed rules at the May FWC meeting in St. Augustine."