Washington, DC — A plan to expand protections in the largest wintering habitat for the endangered Florida manatee are welcome but wanting, according to formal comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Restrictions on the amount of human interaction with manatees, including popular “swim-with” diving operations, are at the heart of the controversy.
This June, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed to broaden and make permanent emergency measures it had adopted last November to prevent growing harassment of manatees by boaters, anglers and divers. FWS proposes to expand an existing series of manatee sanctuaries to encompass all of Kings Bay, on Florida’s central Gulf coast. Under the plan, boating speeds would be restricted and manatee-safe fishing gear would be required. In addition, for the first time FWS would list specific actions, such as chasing or kicking manatees, which would be prohibited but only in Kings Bay. The public comment period on the plan closes today.
“The Service should be commended for recognizing that it needs to do more but it should also recognize that these half-measures will not do the job,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that these proposed rules have become a cause célèbre with local Tea Party activists. “If the Service retreats from even this timid stand it will find itself in court.”
In March 2010, PEER filed a Notice of Intent to Sue under the Endangered Species Act on the grounds that agency inaction was interfering with the recovery of the endangered manatee. That summer, FWS representatives asked PEER to hold off filing suit while it finalized new protective measures – a process that has culminated in the current proposal. PEER argues that this latest proposal is deficient because:
- Key manatee habitat, including the only access to and egress from the habitat have no boat speed limits or other restrictions, leaving manatees vulnerable as they come and go from Kings Bay;
- FWS failed to propose limits on the number of swim-with operators as well as bans on weights, fins or other propulsion aids which facilitate harassment. Instead, FWS opted for a narrow list of prohibited acts which have loopholes and enforcability weaknesses; and
- Protections are limited to Kings Bay, suggesting that kicking, chasing or feeding of manatees is permissable elsewhere.
In this regard, the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission reproached FWS for tacitly encouraging abusive conduct in its educational materials promoting “play” with the animals. The Commission recommended back in 2007 that FWS immediately adopt a mandatory 10-foot buffer between manatees and swimmers.
“In coming decades, as much as half of the total Florida manatee population faces the threat of decimation due to the triple threat of rising boat traffic, shrinking warm-springs habitats and declining water quality with rising red tides and algal blooms poisoning the manatees and their food supplies,” added Ruch, pointing out that 280 manatees, about 5% of the total population, were lost from lack of warm water access during the chilly winter of 2010 alone. “We need stronger medicine now to discharge the manatee from the endangered species emergency room and put it on a solid path to recovery.”