Watchdog group says manatee harassment ‘out of control’

Agency efforts to educate visitors sometimes met with verbal abuse, according to federal biologists


Manatees gather at King Spring, along Florida’s Crystal River, which serves as a warm-water refuge on a 30-degree

Staff Report

FRISCO — Observations by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists may bolster a watchdog group’s arguments that well-intentioned swim-with-manatee programs are actually pushing the endangered marine mammals closer to the brink of extinction.

In some Florida locations, harassment of manatees by visitors may be out of control, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which last month said it will go to court to try and end the programs.

An email written last year by outgoing Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge/ Kings Bay Manatee Refuge manager Michael Lusk may be a “smoking gun” that shows exactly how visitors are disturbing the animals. Without adequate resources to manage the swim-with-manatees programs, the activities are likely to contribute to the decline of the species.

PEER released excerpts of the email:

  • Despite “herculean education efforts, we are not reaching the public” outside of tour groups. Thus, “activities by an uneducated public are likely resulting in the regular take of manatees inside the springs.” For example, “amateur flash photography is out-of-hand in the springs and is likely resulting in the take of manatees”;
  • Increasingly, visitors react to warnings from refuge staff and volunteers with “animosity” and “abusive language.” He also cautioned that increased law enforcement presence is needed to stem “potentially dangerous” situations involving “physical violence”; and
  • “Visitor behavior in the water cannot be adequately monitored solely from land, the boardwalk, or from a kayak. Due to angle and glare it is impossible to see what the majority of visitors are doing inside the springs.”

As a result, Lusk recommended that “the Service should close the springs while manatees are present to prevent take, until such time as resources are available to safely open the springs.”

His conclusions echo a Notice of Intent to Sue the Service recently filed by PEER to end swim-with programs, which enable thousands of tourists swarm the narrow, shallow warm water springs habitat the manatees need to survive.

“A professional in the best position to know admits that the Service has no effective control of swim-with programs to protect manatees from harassment,” said PEER Staff Counsel Laura Dumais.

More visitors are visiting the springs at night when no rangers are around, Dumais said,

“Relying on web videos as its principal strategy to protect these beleaguered animals from growing hordes of tourists obviously does not work,” she said, referring to the presentations aimed at educating refuge visitors.

A FOIA request also yielded a compilation of manatee harassment reports dating back to January. Since then, the USFWS has issued ten citations, while another eight cases remain under criminal investigation.




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