Every year an estimated 100,000 tourists participate in manatee swim-with programs that promote direct encounters in manatee lagoons. Studies indicate that approximately half of these human-manatee interactions constitute harassment, with tourists routinely observed poking, chasing, standing on or kicking manatees, as well as separating mothers from calves.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) actually licenses the swim-with program with special use permits that it issues to local operators in the Crystal River area, north of Clearwater. Despite news stories, videos and other reports, FWS has not revoked permits or taken more than token action to curb abuses, such as
- Widespread non-compliance with FWS recommended guidelines advising against touching the mammals; and
- The 2007 recommendation by the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission that FWS adopt regulations prohibiting the touching of animals, and requiring that divers not approach animals closer than 10 feet and back away from animals that approach them.
FWS has taken the attitude that because no manatee has yet been killed by a swimmer, no agency action is required. As a consequence, the manatee is the only endangered species that is treated like it belongs in a petting zoo.
Citing the anti-harassment mandates of laws such as the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, PEER is pursuing legal action to force FWS to stop giving out commercial swim-with permits, adopt rules that prohibit tourists from touching manatees and safeguard key manatee breeding and resting areas.