Washington, DC — Fearing another deadly winter and facing the threat of a lawsuit, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has unveiled emergency restrictions for Florida’s largest wintering habitats for the endangered manatee. The emergency rule, which will go into effect from November 15, 2010 until March 15, 2011, addresses many of the issues raised in a pending Notice of Intent to Sue from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Citing an “imminent danger” to manatees, the emergency rule, sent this week to the Federal Register, will establish a manatee refuge covering the entire Kings Bay area, a warm water haven for an estimated 565 manatees located on the Gulf coast north of Tampa. This emergency action will restrict waterborne activities, such as boating, throughout an area that now attracts more than 100,000 manatee-viewing tourists a year. Further restrictions could be imposed if threats to manatees warrant them. During the 120-day period the rule is in effect, the Fish & Wildlife Service will hold public hearings to aid it in drafting permanent protective measures.
Last winter saw record manatee deaths from acute cold shock, due to lack of sufficient warm water habitat. Thus far in 2010, 677 manatees have died from all causes. In justifying the need for urgent action, the Fish & Wildlife Service stated:
“Increasing numbers of in-water visitors to Kings Bay and an absence of adequate space at wintering areas in which manatees can shelter free from harassment and other forms of take prompt the need for this emergency designation. Without sufficient space within the existing Kings Bay sanctuaries to shelter, rest, and feed free from harassment, manatees are at risk when exposed to cold temperatures for any length of time.”
“We are very pleased with this announcement,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Christine Erickson “We will urge the Fish & Wildlife Service to make these restrictions permanent and to adopt additional measures to prevent harmful interactions with manatees.”
The Service’s notice also states that “We will also restrict and/or prohibit specific actions known to take manatees in Kings Bay outside of existing manatee sanctuaries, like riding or attempting to ride a manatee.”
“Abusing manatees should be prohibited everywhere, not just in Kings Bay,” added Erickson, whose legal filings have highlighted the stress on endangered species from burgeoning “swim-with” tours in which crowds of swimming tourists poke, chase, stand on or kick manatees, as well as separating mothers from calves. “Because it long ignored these clear threats to manatees, the Fish & Wildlife Service now has to declare an emergency to prevent imminent harm that it should have seen coming.”