Florida’s endangered manatee population received a welcome boost today in a landmark legal settlement reached between conservationists and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC). Stemming from a January 2000 lawsuit filed by a coalition of 18 national and state environmental, animal protection, and public interest groups charging that the Commission was allowing high-speed boat traffic in critical manatee habitat, today’s new agreement is being viewed as a victory for the rare mammals and a step in the right direction for cooperation between the agency and environmentalists.
“The problem has been that boaters and other watercraft users have been speeding way too fast in areas where manatees live, and they’ve been hitting and killing them in record numbers,” said Judith Vallee of Save the Manatee Club, a plaintiff in the suit. “Even though the state implemented some speed regulations in the early 1990s to curb these occurrences, they were never fully enforced or implemented.”
Under the new settlement, FWCC staff will propose adopting additional slow speed zones in nine of Florida’s coastal counties where current speed limits are a danger to manatees. Manatee populations in these areas are high, and boat-manatee collisions are frequent. Commission staff will also propose 14 new sanctuaries where watercraft activity will be off-limits or sharply limited. These sanctuaries will be in known calving or feeding grounds for manatees.
“It’s important to note that what we’re doing here today is protecting manatees, not restricting boaters,” said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, one of the plaintiffs. “The new speed zones will not only help to protect this endangered animal, but they will also help to ensure a safe experience on the water for families and other boaters as well.”
Speeding boats are a major threat to manatees. The majority of adult manatees in Florida have at least one propeller scar; many bear multiple scars and lesions.
Despite recent high counts of manatees, Dr. Naomi Rose of the Humane Society of the United States, another plaintiff, warned, “The high count is the result of unprecedented conditions in which to count the animals. It has been one of the coldest winters on record and the manatees were forced to congregate in warm, clear waters where it’s easy to spot them. That shouldn’t be interpreted as a population increase. Now that we know the minimum number, it gives us some breathing room, but that’s all.”
Rose, the marine mammal scientist for HSUS, also cautioned that, “Manatees are divided equally on both coasts, with small numbers in both locations. Any catastrophic event such as another outbreak of red tide or drastic water temperature changes could easily jeopardize either population.”
“Since 1974, we know that at least 988 manatees have been killed by boats,” added David Guest of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, lead attorney for the coalition. “Countless others have been injured — some horribly disfigured by watercraft. Slowing these crafts down and leaving a few unspoiled areas where boats aren’t permitted will certainly help prevent deaths and injuries. Today’s settlement greatly improves the possibility of recovery for this species.”
Conservationists charge that even with the new settlement, it is still up to individual watercraft operators to respect the manatee protection measures and obey the law. “It’s not unreasonable to ask boaters to slow down in designated areas in an effort to leave manatees unharmed,” said Patti Thompson, staff biologist for Save the Manatee Club. “But even with the added protection this agreement brings, the vast majority of Florida’s waterways are not regulated.”
In January the plaintiffs announced another settlement agreement in their companion federal lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Army Corps of Engineers. According to the terms of that settlement, new projects in manatee habitat must have protection measures such as speed zones, warning signs and law enforcement already in place before the federal government can issue a development permit.
“There can be no doubt that these two settlements create increased protection for Florida’s manatees,” said Guest. “Hopefully, without them being hacked to pieces by boat propellers, these creatures will have a chance to recover and become a vital, thriving species once again.”