The Simple Thing You Can Do to Save Lovable but Endangered Manatees

Don’t swim with sea cows, say conservationists who plan to sue to stop thousands of tourists from getting up close and personal with the marine mammals.

(Photo: Robert Engberg/Flickr)

Mar 11, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Tourists don’t pay to run with wolves, play with black-footed ferrets, or pet other endangered species. So why are they allowed to swim with Florida’s imperiled manatees?

That’s the question on the minds of a conservation organization called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which this week announced it intends to sue to ban “swim with manatee” programs in Florida’s Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and other areas.

Much of the lawsuit hinges on some tour operators actively promoting that people can touch manatees while swimming with them. “Under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, touching an endangered species under most circumstances would be considered harassment,” said Laura Dumais, staff counsel for PEER. “That’s just not legal.”

The Endangered Species Act forbids “take” of any protected species, defined as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.”

These swimming tours existed before the manatee was added to the endangered species list in 1973. As such, their continued operation was grandfathered in. Last year more than 265,000 people came to Crystal River on Florida’s west coast to swim with, boat near, or otherwise look at manatees, according to a report from the Tampa Bay Times. According to PEER, 34 dive shops operate within the refuge.

But PEER argues that things have changed quite a bit since 1973 and that the swimming tours harm manatees.

“Manatees are particularly vulnerable to cold, so they really, really need warm-water refuges,” Dumais said. “The number of warm-water refuges available to them has decreased with human development. The manatees don’t have many places to go to shelter themselves in the time of year when it’s particularly cold.”

According to PEER’s letter to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, swimming with manatees disturbs the animals and causes them to flee the warm waters, putting them at risk if they enter any part of the river where the temperature has fallen below 68 degrees. They also cite calves being separated from their mothers, the threat of plastic trash in the water, and damaging behavior, such as people pulling manatees’ tails, picking up calves, or following manatees that want to be left alone.

The agency said it has received PEER’s notice of intent to sue and that it has already taken steps to protect the manatees in Crystal River.

“In recent weeks the service took proactive steps to improve manatee conservation in Crystal River and address concerns raised by refuge staff and local citizens,” said FWS spokesperson Tom MacKenzie.

Actions taken include closing the springs during cold weather, limiting in-water visitor access to the springs, banning flash photography in the spring, and working to engage visitors in manatee conservation efforts.

FWS has also published a series of videos on how to properly and safely interact with manatees in the water.

Dumais doesn’t condemn tourism. “It’s great that people are so excited about manatees,” she said. “They’re well intentioned. Unfortunately, they end up disrupting the very animals they came to see.”

She encouraged people who want to see manatees to seek out “no-touch” tours. “There are wonderful operators out there,” she said. “You can take those tours and get relatively close to manatees and can be an incredible experience.”

Under federal law, PEER will be eligible to file a lawsuit after 60 days. The organization said it hopes FWS will take further action before that deadline.