Proposal would expand protected areas, but a watchdog group says it’s still missing key protections for endangered marine mammals
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan to give more protection to endangered Florida manatees is a step in the right direction, but may fall short of its goals because it leaves some key areas unprotected, according to watchdog group that monitors federal agencies. The plan expands a series of manatee protected areas, but doesn’t propose limits on the number of swim-with operators and doesn’t call for a bans on weights, fins and other propulsion aids that make it easier for people to harass the marine mammals,
The Fish and Wildlife Service in June proposed a permanent extension of previously established emergency rules aimed at what environmental groups say is an ever-increasing harassment of the animals by boaters and divers.
The agency wants to expand an existing series of manatee sanctuaries to encompass all of Kings Bay, on Florida’s central Gulf coast. Under the plan, boating speeds would be restricted and manatee-safe fishing gear would be required. In addition, for the first time FWS would list specific actions, such as chasing or kicking manatees, which would be prohibited but only in Kings Bay.
The Service designated the first manatee sanctuaries in 1980. At that time, about 100 manatees were using the network of springs and the number of people viewing manatees was estimated at 30,000 to 40,000 per year. Today, more than 550 manatees use Kings Bay and winter manatee viewing activities are estimated to exceed 100,000 people each winter. In recent years, manatees have also been observed using Kings Bay during the summer months.
“The number of manatees using Kings Bay throughout the year has simply outgrown the capacity of existing protected areas,” said Dave Hankla, the Service’s North Florida Ecological Services Office supervisor. “And human use of the bay has increased beyond the impacts originally considered when the existing protections were created.”
Manatee mortalities within Kings Bay have also increased during this period of time. Of the 16 watercraft-related manatee deaths known to have occurred in Kings Bay, 13 of those were in the last 10 years. Seven of these deaths occurred during the summer months between May 1 and August 30.
But a watchdog group said Monday that the plan needs to include speed restrictions on the entrance to Kings Bay, which is the only way in or out for the manatees.
“The (Fish and Wildlife) Service should be commended for recognizing that it needs to do more but it should also recognize that these half-measures will not do the job,” said Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Ruch said the proposed rules have become a cause célèbre with Florida Tea Party activists and threatened legal action if the USFWS back away from its proposed rules.
“If the Service retreats from even this timid stand it will find itself in court,” Ruch said.
PEER helped spur the USFWS to action by threatening to sue in 2010 on the grounds that agency inaction was interfering with the recovery of the endangered manatee. That summer, the agency asked PEER to hold off filing suit while it finalized new protective measures — a process that culminated in the current proposal.
“In coming decades, as much as half of the total Florida manatee population faces the threat of decimation due to the triple threat of rising boat traffic, shrinking warm-springs habitats and declining water quality with rising red tides and algal blooms poisoning the manatees and their food supplies,” Ruch said. At least 280 manatees, about 5 percent of the total population, were lost from lack of warm water access during the chilly winter of 2010.
“We need stronger medicine now to discharge the manatee from the endangered species emergency room and put it on a solid path to recovery,” he concluded.