Manatee Protection Lawsuit Filed in Federal Court

WASHINGTON, DC, January 23, 2008 (ENS) – Even as it seeks to downgrade protections for the endangered Florida manatee, the Bush administration is withholding records about how well key protections are being implemented, claims a lawsuit filed Tuesday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER, a national nonprofit association of government workers in natural resource agencies.

For the past 11 months has been fruitlessly seeking records about the status of efforts to prevent boating deaths, the leading cause of manatee mortality, and stop harassment of manatees by swimmers.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, DC charges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with violating the Freedom of Information Act for failing to release status reports on the repair needs and visibility of manatee-related speed limit and warning signs in Florida waters, including funds expended for sign replacement and maintenance.

The lawsuit is also seeking the release of evaluations of the effectiveness of this signage in preventing death or injuries to manatees.

Finally, the lawsuit seeks an explanation of why the Service has yet to adopt rules forbidding harassment involving swim-with interactions between manatees and humans.

Swimmer and manatee check
each other out in waters near
the Homossasa River, Florida.
(Photo courtesy Cap ‘n Mike’s
Swim With the Manatees)

As an endangered species, manatees are not supposed to be harassed by humans. Yet right outside of a federal sanctuary, tourist resorts urge patrons to swim with manatees, PEER alleges. “The sea cows are poked, kicked, chased and calves become separated from their mothers.”

“Apart from a manatee carcass count, we are trying to find out whether these endangered species are dying needlessly because the safeguards that are supposed to be in place are, in fact, absent,” said PEER Counsel Adam Draper, who filed the lawsuit.

“For example,” he said, “we have reports that speed limit and warning signs for boaters have not been replaced since the 2005 hurricanes.”

PEER first requested the manatee records back in February 2007. Following an appeal in May due to non-response, the agency promised to deliver the material by July 16, 2007. After that self-imposed deadline passed, in September PEER again appealed. When that appeal produced no result, PEER sued.

Responsible swim-with resort operators and federal and state authorities have codes of conduct that require swimmers to enter the water quietly, stay more than 15 feet away from mothers with calves, and refrain from feeding, chasing, riding or poking the animals or entering their sanctuaries. But, the lawsuit alleges, not all resorts nor individuals are responsible.

“It’s OK to swim with manatees in most areas, but swimmers must keep their distance or risk a citation. Intentionally touching a manatee or doing anything that disrupts the animal’s natural behavior is illegal,” the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a joint statement in March 2007.

State and federal authorities received hundreds of complaints in March 2007 in connection with video footage on the Internet that shows people standing on manatees and trying to ride them. “Officials hope to put a stop to it by alerting the public that law enforcement officers are watching and are prepared to issue costly citations when they see people harassing manatees,” the agencies said.

Jim Kraus, the Service’s Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge manager, said, “Our position is that swimming with manatees in local waters is allowable, and limited animal-initiated contact is acceptable. However, in these videotapes there is clearly too much of a good thing.”

Despite a record number of manatee deaths in 2006 and a high level in 2007, PEER alleges that the Bush administration is “pushing to downgrade the manatee from endangered status, which will facilitate construction of marinas and other development inside critical Florida coastal habitat areas.”

“The manatee protection information we are requesting is precisely the sort of data the Fish and Wildlife Service should be actively tracking – they should not have to go on an archaeological expedition to dig it up,” Draper said, noting that the State of Florida recently shelved its own efforts to downgrade the protective status of the manatee. “We are not going away until we get our questions answered.”

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