Manatee Harassment Rampant on Refuges
“Out-of-Hand” Disturbances, Enforcement Overwhelmed, Visitor Education Failing
Washington, DC — Harassment of manatees by visitors is out of control in Florida warm spring refuges, according to agency records posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In addition, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages national wildlife refuges, does not analyze reports of harassment incidents it gets to avert future “swim-with” disturbances of endangered manatees.
In a candid March 3, 2014 email, outgoing Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge/ Kings Bay Manatee Refuge manager Michael Lusk wrote “I believe the amount of unregulated activity in [Three Sisters Springs within the refuge] is likely resulting in the take of manatees.” “Take” is a term defined by the Endangered Species Act; take can be direct or indirect, and includes harassing, harming, or pursuing endangered animals, and is a crime. In his email, Lusk pointed out that –
- Despite “herculean education efforts, we are not reaching the public” outside of tour groups. Thus, “activities by an uneducated public are likely resulting in the regular take of manatees inside the springs.” For example, “amateur flash photography is out-of-hand in the springs and is likely resulting in the take of manatees”;
- Increasingly, visitors react to warnings from refuge staff and volunteers with “animosity” and “abusive language.” He also cautioned that increased law enforcement presence is needed to stem “potentially dangerous” situations involving “physical violence”; and
- “Visitor behavior in the water cannot be adequately monitored solely from land, the boardwalk, or from a kayak. Due to angle and glare it is impossible to see what the majority of visitors are doing inside the springs.”
As a result, Lusk recommended that “the Service should close the springs while manatees are present to prevent take, until such time as resources are available to safely open the springs.” His conclusions echo a Notice of Intent to Sue the Service recently filed by PEER to end swim-with programs, which enable thousands of tourists swarm the narrow, shallow warm water springs habitat the manatees need to survive.
“A professional in the best position to know admits that the Service has no effective control of swim-with programs to protect manatees from harassment,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Laura Dumais, noting that more and more visitors are also entering the springs at night when no refuge staff is present. “Relying on web videos as its principal strategy to protect these beleaguered animals from growing hordes of tourists obviously does not work.”
Also obtained under the Freedom of Information Act are the first tabulations of manatee harassment incidents the Fish & Wildlife Service has assembled after it established a dedicated email address this January to receive citizen reports. Since that time, the agency has issued ten citations and another eight cases remain under criminal investigation. The Service information officer stipulated, however, that the agency has undertaken no review or analysis of these incidents:
“…please be advised that the Service has not done an analysis concerning the extent or nature of harassment of manatees, including those involving swim-with interactions between manatees and humans. Though the Service has collected the statistics provided to you, this information has not been thoroughly assessed and/or analyzed.”
“Perhaps the Service is afraid that if it were to reflect on what is taking place, it would actually have to do something about it,” Dumais added, noting that the Service has received hundreds – if not thousands – of complaints of manatee harassment over many years through various channels before it created earlier this year a dedicated email address, which is only recording a handful of complaints. “This head-in-the-sand posture characterizes poor wildlife management and simply invites lawsuits.”