Environmentalists Hail Settlement in Manatee Lawsuit
By Brian Hansen
WASHINGTON, DC, January 4, 2000 (ENS) - A coalition of environmental groups today announced a landmark legal settlement that could help to pull back the imperiled Florida manatee from the brink of extinction.
In their suit, the groups alleged that the federal agencies were not enforcing environmental laws designed to protect endangered species such as manatees, which are large, slow moving aquatic mammals that are being killed in large numbers by human activities.
Helen Spivey, co-chair of the Florida based Save the Manatee Club, told reporters that the settlement fosters hope that the gentle but imperiled manatee might someday be fully recovered.
"This landmark settlement agreement provides hope that our children and our children's children will still be able to see a manatee in the wild, and one of America's rare and unique national treasures won't be just a picture in a book of extinct species," Spivey said.
The exact number of manatees remaining in the wild is unknown, but it is thought that there are between 2,200 and 2,600 animals remaining in the United States. Manatees have no natural enemies, and scientists believe they can live for 60 years or more.
Spivey and other environmentalists said they originally filed their lawsuit because of the escalating number of manatees that are being killed by boats. Manatees are slow moving creatures, and they typically cannot move fast enough to avoid getting hit by speeding watercraft.
Manatees die due to other human activities. They are crushed or drowned in canal locks and flood control structures; they ingest fish hooks, litter and monofiliment fishing line; and they become entangled in crab trap lines. And they are subject to deliberate acts of animal cruelty.
The most serious threat facing manatees is loss of their habitat - shallow rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, canals and some freshwater springs. In the summer months, Florida manatees have been found as far west as Louisiana and as far north of the Carolinas.
Eric Glitzenstein, a prominent Washington attorney who represented the groups in their lawsuit, told ENS that the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the other federal defendants offered settlement terms that were too good to pass up.
"This was a deal that was too good not to take," said Glitzenstein, who added that "if the settlement is breached, we can and will be back in court."
Sam Hamilton, southeast regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement that the agency is "pleased with the terms of the settlement."
A component of the Interior Department, the Fish and Wildlife Service is the federal agency primarily responsible for the conservation, protection and enhancement of fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats.
The settlement announced today commits the FWS to completing a number of manatee conservation actions within a specified time period.
The deal imposes certain requirements on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for permitting the construction of canal locks, flood control structures, marinas, and other boating related facilities in manatee habitat.
The settlement agreement, which is subject to federal court approval, will further the protection and recovery of manatees in six primary ways, Glitzenstein told reporters.
First and foremost, the agreement requires the FWS to establish new manatee refuges and sanctuaries throughout peninsular Florida, which will address the needs of the manatee at an "ecosystem level," Glitzenstein said.
Under the deal, the new refuges and sanctuaries must be proposed for public comment by April 2, 2001, and they must be adopted by September 28, 2001. The settlement does not specify where or how large these new conservation areas shall be, but Glitzenstein emphasized that all concerned parties will have a "full and fair opportunity to submit their views" on their designation.
Second, the settlement requires the FWS to issue a set of comprehensive regulations designed to ensure that projects permitted by the Army Corps of Engineers - which includes projects such as docks, piers and boat slips - have no more than a "negligible" effect on manatees.
Glitzenstein said that under the current federal environmental laws, that provision should have been enacted many years ago.
"We think it is a tremendous step forward for government agencies to acknowledge illegal [actions] in this regard, and to finally put in place protective mechanisms that should have been put in place literally decades ago," noted Glitzenstein. She blasted the Corps for approving marine projects in a "piecemeal" fashion without analyzing their cumulative adverse impacts.
In a related fashion, the settlement also requires the agencies to analyze the cumulative impacts of all Corps permitted projects in manatee habitat.
Fourth, as a type of interim provision, the settlement requires the federal agencies to apply new, stringent criteria before approving any new projects that would increase boat traffic in manatee habitat. The interim measure would preclude the construction of new marine projects in areas where federal authorities determine that manatees face a "high" or "medium" risk of being killed by boats.
The settlement also requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a new and updated manatee recovery plan. Environmental groups have long maintained that the current plan is inadequate.
Finally, the settlement provides for much greater public scrutiny of the Army Corps of Engineer's permitting process, which Glitzenstein said has been dominated by industries and government agencies that have promoted a number of ill advised projects that have adversely affected the manatees.
"Under this settlement, that era will come to a close," Glitzenstein said. "There will be opportunities for the first time for the public to see what is going on."
A total of 19 environmental, animal welfare, and public interest groups were plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, the settlement for which was signed off on by Lois Schiffer, assistant attorney general for the U.S. Justice Department's Environmental and Natural Resources Division.
Many different environmental groups have posted more information about the settlement on their websites, including the Save the Manatee Club, located at: http://www.savethemanatee.org.
The federal government's perspective on the settlement can be found on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's website at: http://southeast.fws.gov/news/2001/r01-001.html.