Man fined, ordered to give up boat after killing manatee

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St. Petersburg Times Tampabay.com

By Craig Pittman, Times Staff Writer
Posted: Feb 02, 2011 04:29 PM

The angler recognized the boat roaring past him in the manatee refuge. It belonged to one of his neighbors in Brevard County. It was going much too fast.

Then the boat slammed into a manatee, a collision so violent that the boat jumped out of the water. The manatee's fluke was still sticking up from behind the motor. She thrashed wildly as blood spread across the rippling waves.

The boat sped away. The angler, horrified, called the authorities to report what his neighbor had done. It turned out this wasn't the first time he had violated the speed rules.

Now the boat owner, Joseph Miata, has become only the second person in nearly 40 years to be successfully prosecuted for killing a manatee.

Miata, 62, of Merritt Island, was sentenced Tuesday to a year of probation and a $600 fine. In addition, he must forfeit his blue and white 1987 Mach 1, the boat that struck and killed a manatee that was nursing a calf.

Manatee advocates hope that Miata's case -- and especially the loss of his boat -- will deter other boaters from violating the rules designed to protect manatees from being run over.

"That's bound to get their attention," said Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.

Miata's prosecution should benefit more than manatees, Rose added: "Somebody like that is not only putting manatees at risk but also putting other boaters at risk."

Miata, in a brief conversation with a reporter Tuesday, suggested that his sentence for killing a manatee seemed unfair compared to the sentences handed out to boaters who kill people. But in a separate call his attorney, Corey Cohen, said Miata thought the sentence was fair.

"He was okay with forfeiting the boat in exchange for getting on probation," Cohen said.

The manatee that Miata killed was one of 83 run down by boats last year -- down from the record 97 manatees killed by speeding boats in 2009.

Since the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973, the only other boater to be successfully prosecuted for killing a manatee was Jimmy Malmsten, a fishing boat captain from Stuart. In 1984, Malmsten's boat accidentally hit a manatee calf.

"It looked to me like it was dead," Malmsten later told a federal judge. "I heard it was good eating. I just took a couple chunks out of it."

The judge ordered him to pay a $750 fine and sentenced him to six months behind bars, followed by a year of probation.

Because Malmsten kept the meat to feed his wife and four children, investigators had the evidence to charge him. Most of the time when manatees are killed by boats, there is little or no physical evidence showing who did the deed or even where it happened.

In Miata's case, the key was the eyewitness.

Miata's crime occurred about 8 p.m. on July 11. His neighbor, identified only as J.P. in federal court papers, said that while his own boat was anchored and he was fishing near Kiwanis Island in the Sykes Canal Manatee Refuge, he saw Miata's boat zoom past and clobber the manatee.

J.P. not only reported the incident to the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, but when two investigators - one from the state and one from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - showed up to interview him, the witness took them out in his boat to show them where it happened.

Miata was no stranger to the wildlife officers. He'd been cited for speeding in zones where boaters are supposed to slow down.

When the investigators interviewed him, he said he hadn't realized what he had hit before he zoomed away. But Miata's passenger, a relative identified in court papers as K.B., told them that "Miata was aware what had been hit after looking back at the thrashing manatee," the plea agreement says.

Miata pleaded guilty in November to taking an endangered species, a federal misdemeanor. If there's a lesson in his case, his attorney said, it's a simple one:

"The lesson is to slow down," Cohen said. "Slow down and follow the law."

Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]

Copyright 2011 St. Petersburg Times