New Manatee Protection Lawsuit in the Works
End of “Swim-With” Programs, Plus Expansion of Habitat and Sanctuaries Sought
Washington, DC — Safeguards for the endangered Florida manatee need to be significantly strengthened, according to a Notice of Intent to Sue filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). One principal objective of the action is to prohibit so-called “swim-with” tours that bring hundreds of swimmers into small shallow warm-water lagoons to touch otherwise resting manatees.
The Florida manatee is one of the most endangered marine mammals in our coastal waters. Despite their size, they have low levels of body fat and a very slow metabolism, making them extremely vulnerable to cold and unable to survive long in water colder than 68°F. Yet, the rare shallow warm-water springs manatees need in the winter are precisely those targeted by these increasingly popular swim-with tours.
Together with a group of naturalists and eco-tourist professionals, PEER charges the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service with violating the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Refuge Administration Act, which governs management of federal wildlife refuges. Today’s notice gives the Service 60 days to take action before the PEER-group is eligible to file suit in federal district court.
“Five years ago, we served a similar notice but agreed to hold off suing because the Service promised to make improvements,” stated PEER Counsel Laura Dumais who filed today’s notice. “In the succeeding years, the problems have only gotten worse and it has become clear that the Service has no intention of taking meaningful corrective action.”
Last week, the Fish & Wildlife Service issued a Final Environmental Assessment for Manatee Wildlife Viewing on Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Three Sisters Springs which contains very limited restrictions on human access and will likely make matters worse by concentrating the hordes of flailing swimmers in areas that the manatees must traverse to reach the limited protected zones. By contrast, the PEER action would –
- Ban “swim-with” programs and all other contacts that would put humans within 10 feet of a manatee, not just at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge but all across the state;
- Expand no-human-access sanctuary areas so that manatees would have unimpeded access to Crystal Springs and Three Sisters Springs throughout the winter; and
- Designate the entire Kings Bay, Three Sisters Springs, and Homosassa Springs as critical manatee habitat – something the Service has long admitted was warranted but has yet to do.
“People do not need to pet manatees to learn about or appreciate them,” added Dumais, noting that the Service recently issued a news release threatening fines for harassment of manatees by drones flying high above refuge waters while ignoring daily harassment by swimmers in the water directly on top of them. “We aim to ensure that the Service can no longer avoid addressing this widespread, obvious, and illegal harassment of endangered marine mammals.”