Washington, DC — While the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service concedes growing concerns with tourists being allowed to swim with endangered Florida manatees, the agency has rejected a petition to ban the practice or impose new safeguards, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In July, PEER had petitioned the agency to stop giving out commercial “swim-with” permits, adopt rules that forbid swimming with the manatees and safeguard key manatee breeding areas.
In a letter dated August 25, 2009, the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) indicated that it would take no action at this time, although it had yet to make a decision on whether to designate Kings Bay, Three Sisters Springs and Homosassa Springs as critical habitat for the manatee, an action that would restrict swimming in those areas during winter months.
Most significantly, FWS is refusing to directly prohibit manatee “swim-with” programs that promote direct encounters in manatee lagoons. In its letter, the agency conceded that complaints were increasing and that law enforcement “officers do believe, though, that existing laws could better define harassment” (harassment of endangered species is already illegal). Nonetheless, FWS argued that its commercial permits provide “a significant management tool which currently minimizes harassment.” In addition, FWS said it was taking unspecified “additional steps to better manage manatee harassment concerns.”
“This was a ‘don’t worry, be happy’ non-response that failed to provide any indication of precisely what the Service is doing or why anyone should believe it will work,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Christine Erickson, who filed the petition. “We have tried to take a cooperative approach, asking the Fish & Wildlife Service to exercise its discretion to better protect the manatee; so now we will have to resort to litigation in order to obtain any additional safeguards.”
PEER contends that the current practices are manifestly ineffective in protecting the manatee from tens of thousands of people poking, chasing, standing on or kicking manatees, as well as separating mothers from calves each year. Since it filed the petition, PEER has received numerous videos from citizens showing swimmers abusing manatees. Yet in its letter, FWS stated it “identified very few events that warranted the issuance of citations,” dismissing increased complaints as reflecting “the public’s poor understanding of what constitutes harassment under the law.”
“How can the public understand the existing regulations when the Fish & Wildlife Service admits their own officers need better legal guidance?” asked Erickson. “The real problem seems to be the Service evading its legal responsibility to do what is necessary to preserve and protect this iconic Florida species.”
PEER is also filing a Freedom of Information Act request with FWS for documents describing what “additional steps” it claims to be taking as well as evidence of why the agency has reason to assert that these steps will work. FWS records previously obtained by PEER showed harassment on the increase while attempts to minimize violations through permits and enforcement have been highly unsuccessful.