This is really upsetting, especially to someone who used to study manatees: Florida has been toying with the idea of down-grading manatees’ “endangered” status and relaxing the amount of protection they receive. Protective laws include (and consist mostly of) laws which force boaters to slow down in areas where manatees live and breed. Given that the number one killer of manatees (perhaps really the *only* one) is collisions with boat propellers, these laws have been largely responsible for the up-swing in their numbers over the past 20 years. However, now that the laws have proven successful, its time to get rid of them, right? Well, that seems to be the backwards way that Florida is looking at it, and it pisses me off.
Thing is, tourists and residents don’t like the laws. They go to Florida to boat, and to boat as fast as they please, where-ever they please. Avid boaters have been extremely vocal opponents to laws restricting boat speed. When I volunteered at Mote Marine Observatory, there was palpable tension during boat races, when they expected that many manatees would be hurt or killed. Manatees are slow-moving creatures who need to surface for air–they don’t stand a chance against high-speed boats ripping through their habitats. Do Florida legislators think that because there are *more* manatees they’ve suddenly become better at getting out of the way??
Thing is, “more” is really relative. We’re still talking about a population of manatees less that 3,000 individuals. Total, for the whole state. Now this number may look rosy in comparison to a count taken in 1991 which found about 1200, but still, 3000 really isn’t very many. Especially compared to the tens of thousands which are hypothesized to live in Florida a hundred years or so ago. Manatees are large mammals which breed slowly, have a long gestation, and devote a lot of time to one calf at a time. These facts contribute to the problem of manatee numbers: its not a short-term problem. The report which suggests that manatees don’t fit the qualifications for endangered status has been sent to the White House from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Florida, and is still subject to change. However, with the Bush admin’s stellar track record on environmental issues, I’m not holding my breath. Sadly, the manatees better learn to do just that.
UPDATE: After reading the report mentioned above, it came to my attention that the group that requested that the report be drawn up was the confusingly-named Coastal Conservation Association. The CCA is not a conservation group, but an organization of boaters and fishers which throws its clout in legislative spheres and legal battles. They retain a full-time lobbyist in Washington and 18 full-time local lobbyists. Their “action points” are an almalgom of preventing over-fishing (good!) while also attempting to eliminate places where fishermen can’t go (they list as an “accomplishment”: Worked with the Biscayne National Park Fishery Working Group to curtail and modify proposed no-entry and no-fishing zones, in Florida).