New Manatee Safeguards Need to Be Strengthened
Inadequate Enforcement Unless Refuge Adopts Video Monitoring System
Washington, DC — The latest steps announced to protect endangered Florida manatees from harassment by hordes of swimmers are laudable but insufficient, according to formal comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages warm spring refuges critical to manatee survival, is finally acting after numerous reports that the numbers and abusive behavior of “swim with the manatees” tourists have gotten completely out of control.
For the Three Sisters Springs Unit of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, the Service is proposing to significantly limit the number of tour operator permits issued (from 34 to 5), require a trained guide to accompany a maximum of five “swim-with” visitors, prohibit diving and use of fins, and enact other measures. While complementing the agency on finally recognizing the depth of the problem, PEER critiqued its plan for –
- Being too limited in geographic scope. Restrictions apply to just one unit of the refuge and not elsewhere where manatees congregate. In addition, several key measures – such as proposed closures of narrow channels that manatees navigate to avoid throngs of swimmers – are discretionary, not mandatory;
- Visitor behavior restrictions are vague and unenforceable. Rather than adopt a no-touch rule and require a six-foot buffer as PEER and others have urged, the Service is proposing mere guidelines with no specified consequences for violations; and
- The Service has dedicated no resources to enforce its new restrictions. Internal documents obtained by PEER show Service managers admit they are currently unable to monitor visitor behavior.
“We are glad that the Fish & Wildlife Service now finally admits that it has a manatee harassment problem, but the measures the Service proposes are limited, ambiguous, and almost grudging in nature, and would leave manatees vulnerable to harm,” stated PEER Counsel Laura Dumais, pointing out that the Service’s plan depends upon it being able to ensure that commercial tour operators prevent harassment, a capacity it has yet to demonstrate. “Fundamentally, the Service should stop treating manatees as denizens of a marine mammal petting zoo.”
To bolster enforcement, PEER urges the Service to deploy comprehensive monitoring by installing a network of video cameras. Save the Manatee Club and others have offered to install and maintain such a system, sparing the cash-strapped agency any expense. This would serve as a reliable enforcement tool producing admissible evidence of harassment, deter willful violations since people will know they are on camera, help the Service identify any tour operators operating outside the terms of their permits, and produce troves of valuable scientific information about manatee behavior under different water conditions.
“Videos would deter visitor abuse in a way the Service has yet to demonstrate,” added Dumais who earlier this year drafted a Notice of Intent to Sue the Service on the manatee swim-with programs. “The Service should accept the video camera system proposal to help fix the ‘harassment tourism’ nightmare it has allowed to develop at the Refuge.”