Washington, DC — The federal official most responsible for the precarious state of the Florida manatee is undergoing Senate confirmation hearings today to become the next Director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. During the dozen years that Sam Hamilton headed the FWS southeast region, the endangered Florida manatee has made only tenuous progress toward recovery, principally due to lawsuits and not agency initiatives, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
With only 3,807 animals, according to 2009 agency estimates, the manatee is still in danger of spiraling toward extinction:
- The potential biological removal level (PBR) is defined by the Marine Mammal Protection Act as “the maximum number of animals, not including natural mortalities that may be removed from a marine mammal stock while allowing that stock to reach or maintain its optimum sustainable population.” The PBR for manatees is approximately 12 per year. Yet, in 2008, a total of 337 manatees died, many directly at the hands of humans, primarily through boat collisions;
- The State of Florida projects a 30 to 50% decline in manatee population over the next 60 years due to the triple threat of rising boat traffic, loss of habitat (particularly warm-springs) and red tides and algal blooms poisoning the manatees and their food supplies; and
- Much critical manatee habitat is unprotected from swarms of tourists in “swim-with” encounters, or from boaters and fishermen.
“By every measure, Florida manatee populations are not recovering – they are teetering on the precipice,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Christine Erickson. “What negligible population gains have occurred are in spite of and not because of official intervention.”
As the senior federal official responsible for the welfare of Florida’s manatee populations, PEER argues that Hamilton’s management of threats to the manatees bodes ill for the fate of other vulnerable wildlife if he becomes FWS Director. Many of the most important steps taken by FWS, such as the expansion of sanctuaries and establishment of boating speed limits, have resulted from lawsuits brought against the agency by conservation groups, such as the Save the Manatee Club. By contrast, both federal and state agencies have sought to lower protections and allow more marina development in areas now off-limits.
“Florida is a dying hotspot of biodiversity due to unchecked development,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that FWS under Hamilton’s watch raised few objections to construction inroads into wildlife habitat. “The Senate should carefully examine what has happened to the manatee, the Florida panther and the web of other endangered species in the region in making a decision as to whether this nominee will be good leader for the Fish & Wildlife Service.”