Washington, DC — After its initial plan was widely panned, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is trying a second time to justify downgrading the protected status of the Florida manatee, but this new attempt fails to address fundamental failings, according to comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Today is the last day for public comments before FWC finalizes what would be the state’s second draft manatee management plan in the past seven months.
After the FWC released its first plan last November for reducing or down-listing the legal status of the iconic marine mammal from endangered to threatened, it received nearly one thousand overwhelmingly negative comments. In April, it unveiled what it called a “substantially improved” version which reaches the same conclusion – manatees merit lesser protections despite record deaths in 2006 and acknowledged dangers, such as loss of warm-water refuges and red tides, which could decimate manatee populations.
Under the state's down-listing plan, it would issue more building permits at a faster rate in manatee habitat. In addition, it would extend greater leeway to grant exemptions to speed limits and access bans in areas where slow-moving manatees are most vulnerable to propeller wounds, the leading cause of mortality.
Although FWC is projecting substantial declines in manatee population, the state plan consists of a series of promises to enhance current efforts, without any assurance of success due to –
- Lack of any dedicated funding to pay for all of the new biological monitoring, enforcement patrols, improved signage and other pledged actions;
- An admitted significant shortage in law enforcement staff. The report cites a review by the International Association of Chiefs of Police which found that FWC needed nearly 300 more officers just to meet minimum requirements and may need to double its force to perform its wildlife protection role adequately; and
- A non-enforcement posture that relies on small infraction fines (maximum of $80) to deter powerboat speeding violations in posted manatee zones.
“Florida’s new plan is nothing but sea cow-pie in the sky,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that the plan would remain in place even if it is demonstrably not working, since manatee populations would have to fall to catastrophically low levels before triggering a return to the present endangered species protections. “The state is calling a hope and a prayer its recovery strategy.”
The significance of the pending state relaxation is magnified by a recent federal plan to down-list the manatee as well. The current federal protections under the Endangered Species Act have served as a backstop against state non-performance, but if the Bush administration pushes forward with its down-listing effort, the state's role will have much greater meaning.
“This federal retreat would leave behind a very tattered state safety net,” added Ruch. “To the State of Florida the manatee seems little more than a cute mascot whose welfare is secondary to commercial convenience.”