Washington, DC — Florida’s largest natural spring haven for wintering manatees should be put off limits to swimmers and snorkelers, according to a formal notice of intent to sue filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The legal notice cites cold-shock from loss of warm water habitat as causing the record high mortality levels in 2009 and 2010 for the acutely endangered sea cow.
At issue are the manatee “swim-with” operations in Kings Spring, located at the headwaters of Crystal River about 60 miles north of Tampa and 30 miles west of Ocala. Each year, an estimated 100,000 tourists swim among the manatees, in some cases kicking and riding the animals, as well as separating mothers from calves. Kings Spring is the primary source for warm water which an estimated 800 manatees need for thermal regulation to survive.
PEER points to studies showing that swimmers drive the manatees out of the warm spring into colder waters. The record cold weather this winter has killed an astounding 280 manatees due to cold stress-related illnesses, about 5% of the estimated total manatee population. As of March 24th, 431 manatees have died in 2010, already surpassing in three months the record for manatee deaths for any full calendar year on record. Most of this year’s manatee deaths were adults who died of acute cold shock.
“This winter was catastrophic for the Florida manatee and we need to take steps now to prevent a recurrence,” stated PEER Counsel Christine Erickson, who drafted the filing. “The Fish & Wildlife Service cannot waste any more time – they must act now to protect this species from further harm.”
Last summer, PEER petitioned the Fish & Wildlife Service to 1) stop issuing commercial swim-with permits; 2) adopt rules forbidding swimming with the manatees; and 3) expand critical habitat status to key manatee breeding and resting areas. In August, the agency rejected the first two prongs of the PEER petition and indicated that it would consider additional critical habitat. On January 12, 2010, the Service issued a finding acknowledging that the current habitat designations were insufficient to protect the endangered manatee population, but declined to act due to the need to address unspecified “higher priority listing-related actions and funding constraints.”
“The Service admits that critical habitat status is warranted but inexplicably says that taking simple actions to protect manatees, one of the most endangered marine mammals in the U.S., are not a priority,” Erickson added. “Had the Fish & Wildlife Service acted voluntarily last year in response to our petition, some of these manatee deaths could have been avoided.”
The PEER notice of intent to sue filed under the Endangered Species Act gives the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service up to 60 days to act or risk facing a lawsuit demanding a mandatory sanctuary designation for Kings Spring.