Settlement Means New Protections for Manatees

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 27, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced new measures aimed at protecting the endangered Florida manatee. The steps, which include new speed zones for powerboats and better enforcement of existing rules, refuges and national parks, are part of a settlement between the federal government and environmental groups who sued over what they called ineffective management of the dwindling species.

Under the latest agreement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) will propose three new manatee protection areas and establish specific time lines for putting up signs to alert boaters that they are entering manatee protection areas. The agreement, which was filed in federal district court in Washington DC, is the most recent development stemming from a January 2001 legal settlement between the agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a coalition of more than a dozen environmental groups.

manatee

Florida manatees live in shallow coastal waters, where they feed on seagrasses and aquatic vegetation. (Four photos courtesy Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)
"We expect these measures to help reduce the high rate of manatee deaths from collisions with boats," said Sam Hamilton, southeast regional director for the USFWS. "But, the success of our efforts, including the numerous actions to protect manatees that we have taken in the past, depend on responsible boater behavior. We ask that boaters comply with all posted speed zones."

Collisions with boats and propellers are a major cause of manatee injuries and death in Florida. In 2002, 305 manatees died in state waters, according to the latest figures from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Ninety-five of those deaths - 31 percent of the total - were related to watercraft, the highest number ever.

In January 2001, conservation groups including the Save the Manatee Club, Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, and the Sierra Club, won a landmark settlement agreement compelling the USFWS to institute new measures to protect manatees. The 2001 settlement committed the agency to a schedule for the designation of new manatee refuges and sanctuaries throughout peninsular Florida.

But in July 2001, the USFWS called the settlement illegal, saying it "unlawfully" constrains the discretion of the federal government to take no action to protect manatees, and asked a federal judge to overturn the agreement. Federal District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled against the USFWS, and ordered the agency to designate new refuges for Florida manatees by November 1, 2002.

breathing

Manatees are mammals, and must come to the surface to breathe. While near the surface, the slow moving creatures are vulnerable to collisions with boats.
The agency designated 13 areas as refuges in November 2002. In this most recent agreement, the USFWS has agreed that other areas of the state should also have increased manatee protection, and agreed to proceed with the rulemaking on an expedited schedule.

The USFWS has pledged to draft a proposed rule designating additional manatee protection areas in the Caloosahatchee River, the St. John's River, and the Halifax River and Tomoka River complex, by March 31. After soliciting public comment on the rule, the USFWS will issue a final decision by July 31.

For any areas that are designated as manatee refuges or sanctuaries, the USFWS will place temporary signs or buoys delineating the newly designated manatee protection areas by August 31, to notify the public about boating restrictions. The process of placing permanent signs at these areas will begin by September 1, and be completed "as soon as practicable," the agency said.

For the 13 areas designated by the USFWS as manatee protection areas last November 8, the USFWS has committed to begin erecting permanent signs by February 10.

The new protections are targeted at areas with high rates of boating related manatee mortality. For example, since 1974, 48 percent of Lee County's watercraft related manatee deaths have been documented in the Caloosahatchee River system, and 75 percent of the Caloosahatchee River deaths have occurred since 1990.

tail

Many of the manatees that researchers know on sight can be identified by the patterns of scars on their backs and tails.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's (FWCC) November 2002 study of the Caloosahatchee River showed that for the past 13 years, boating related manatee deaths have been increasing faster in that river system than anywhere else in Florida.

"The tragic increase in boat related manatee deaths underscores the urgent need for better manatee protection in areas identified as having high manatee use, high manatee mortality, high boating activity, and inadequate manatee protection regulations," said Patti Thompson, director of science and conservation for Save the Manatee Club, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. "As a result of this agreement, manatees should finally get some of the protection they need in these areas."

To complement the terms of the agreement, the USFWS plans to increase the presence of federal law enforcement officers on the water to ensure boater compliance with speed zones, and conduct formal consultations for proposed watercraft related activities that may affect manatees. This year, the agency will conduct task force operations during high use weekends as well as weekday patrols in high priority manatee areas throughout Florida.

The USFWS will work with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to coordinate enforcement activities. The National Park Service has also pledged to strengthen manatee protection efforts within national parks throughout Florida.

Eeyore

Researchers examine an adult female manatee, dubbed Eeyore, whose skin is scarred by at least four different collisions with boat propellers.
"Our goal is that these further measures will decrease manatee mortality, especially in parts of Southwest Florida," said Hamilton. "If we are able to see improvement as a result of these measures, then we can expect to have greater flexibility in how we approach watercraft access projects in the future. We continue to believe that the Florida manatee can co-exist with boaters."

Representatives from the National Marine Manufacturer's Association, the Marina Operators Association of America, the Association of Florida Community Developers and the Marine Industries Association of Florida participated in negotiations with the environmental coalition and the government agencies, and also signed off on the 2001 negotiated settlement.

But four marine industry groups that intervened in the lawsuit were not party to the latest negotiations, and say they are unhappy with the settlement. The Marine Industries Association of South Florida notes that the latest manatee count, completed last week, found 3,113 manatees, the second highest count since the survey began in 1991.

Perhaps, the manufacturers say, the rising number of manatee deaths is simply a function of the rising numbers of live manatee swimming in Florida's waters.

Biologists with the FWCC's Florida Marine Research Institute say optimal weather conditions played a role in the high count, and could account for most of the more than 50 percent increase over last January's count, which was plagued by bad weather.

FWCC executive director Kenneth Haddad says the agency has decided to delay any decision on weather to downlist manatees from endangered to threatened on the state list of at risk species. Haddad said deciding the issue now would "further polarize the public at a time when various factions are arguing and litigating to increase or decrease manatee protection efforts."

manatee

A manatee cow with a nursing calf. Scientists believe that there are just over 3,000 manatees remaining in the United States. (Photo by Galen Rathbun, courtesy USFWS)
The USFWS plans to meet with all the stakeholders by March 10 to discuss additional measures for protecting manatees. The agency received a variety of suggestions from the public during a comment period that began last November, and plans to share all these suggestions with all parties in the lawsuit by February 12.

Conservation groups hope that the agreement and ongoing consultations will lead to additional protections for manatees, and will influence the siting of future boat docks and other developments related to watercraft. Under the new rules, anyone seeking to build new docks or water strips must undergo a formal application process requiring review by the USFWS and other federal agencies.

"Our message has always been simple: effective manatee protection measures need to be in place before new docks, and the subsequent boat traffic associated with them, are authorized," said Thompson. "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking some of the necessary steps so manatees will be protected once new boat docks are permitted in these areas."

The final agreement is available at: http://northflorida.fws.gov/Manatee/manatees.htm