Washington, DC — Emergency rules to protect endangered Florida manatees slated to end in less than a month should instead be strengthened and made permanent, according to formal comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This winter has been the deadliest on record, with more than 100 manatees dying since December from cold stress alone.
Back in early November 2010, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) announced emergency restrictions on waterborne activities in the manatees’ largest wintering habitat on Kings Bay on the Gulf coast north of Tampa. The rules are in effect until March 15, 2011. The Service has solicited public input in shaping permanent protective measures.
The “imminent danger” cited by FWS as the reason for the emergency restrictions is hordes of tourists driving manatees away from vital warm water havens. Swimmers and divers seeking manatee interactions in some cases kick or punch the animals and separate mothers from calves.
PEER had filed a notice of intent to sue the Service for its failure to rein in widespread harassment of the animals by tourists. In comments filed today, PEER urged FWS to adopt actions on a permanent basis that would reduce manatee deaths from loss of warm water habitat and boating collisions, including –
- Creating a Manatee Sanctuary covering the entire canal system, starting at the entrance of Kings Bay proper and up through Magnolia and Three Sisters Springs. At the same time, the existing manatee sanctuary at the King Spring should be expanded to include the spring itself and the existing entrance corridor (known as the “keyhole”);
- Ending Harassment of Manatees by requiring divers to wear wet suits and flotation devices while banning weight belts and swim fins to make it more difficult for swimmers to touch manatees at depth. In addition, PEER urges a quota system to reduce crowds and operator responsibility for abuses by their customers; and
- Eliminating Summer High Speed Zone. PEER argues that the summer high speed watercraft zone in Kings Bay is a growing and poses a needless risk to both manatees and boaters. The shallowness of the Bay combined with declining water clarity multiplies the risk of accident. As a result, today the majority of manatee watercraft deaths in Kings Bay occur during the summer.
“Tourists should be able to swim with manatees but not abuse them,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is pushing FWS to finally adopt a legal definition of harassment which outlaws hazing with watercraft, feeding, chasing, riding, holding, separating a calf from a cow, attempting to block a manatee, or disturbing a manatee when asleep or at rest. “The Fish & Wildlife Service needs to take a series of firm but common sense steps to address a problem that has gotten out of control.”