Washington, DC — The endangered Florida manatee is being illegally besieged by hordes of tourists who are allowed to swim with the animal, according to a formal petition for rulemaking filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) which issues permits sanctioning the practice. PEER is demanding that the federal agency stop giving out commercial swim-with permits, adopt rules that forbid swimming with the manatees and safeguard key manatee breeding and resting areas.
Every year an estimated 100,000 tourists participate in manatee “swim-with” programs that promote direct encounters in manatee lagoons. Studies indicate that approximately half of these human-manatee interactions constitute harassment, with tourists routinely observed poking, chasing, standing on or kicking manatees, as well as separating mothers from calves.
Citing the anti-harassment mandates of laws such as the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, PEER is formally petitioning FWS to halt manatee swim-with programs. Besides numerous studies documenting the harm to manatees, the PEER petition points to:
- Widespread non-compliance with FWS “recommended guidelines” advising against touching the mammals;
- Numerous complaints but virtually no prosecutions for manatee harassment; and
- The 2007 recommendation by the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission that FWS adopt regulations prohibiting the touching of animals, requiring that divers not approach animals closer than 10 feet, and back away from animals that approach them;
“The Fish & Wildlife Service has taken the attitude that because no manatee has yet been killed by a swimmer, no agency action is required,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Christine Erickson referring to minutes from an agency conference call on the issue that PEER obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. “The manatee is the only endangered species that is treated like it belongs in a petting zoo.”
The FWS actually licenses the swim-with program with special use permits that it issues to local operators in the Crystal River area, north of Clearwater. Despite news stories, videos and other reports, FWS has not revoked permits or taken more than token action to curb abuses.
Significantly, the top FWS official in charge of the region that includes Florida, Sam Hamilton, has been nominated by President Obama to head the agency. PEER has been sharply critical of Hamilton’s record.
“The Fish & Wildlife Service is the main enabler for harassment of manatees,” added Erickson, who drafted the petition. “Unfortunately in recent years, the agency has placed economic and political considerations ahead of its duty to protect wildlife.”
If FWS does not act on the PEER petition within a reasonable time it will be subject to a lawsuit for failure to act. In addition, the agency may be liable to suit for failure to effectively enforce manatee protection laws.