“Full speed ahead and damn the manatees!”

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1995:

ORLANDO, Florida– Killing
manatees at a record rate of almost two a
week, boaters could extinguish the Floridan
subspecies in the wild––if they keep it
up––before the end of the 20th century, now
less than five years away. More than 60
Florida manatees died during the first quarter
of 1995, twice the rate of 1994, when 192
manatees were found dead, second only to
the 206 deaths reported in 1990 among the 25
years that statistics have been kept. As in 24
of those 25 years, the leading cause of death,
claiming exactly 60, was being sliced or
stabbed by power boat propellers, prows,
and keels. That broke the 1989 record of 58
human-caused deaths, 53 of them caused by
boats. Severe cold is the manatees’ only other
significant killer.

The already ominous plight of man-
atees got rapidly worse after February 17,
when Volusia County Judge John Roger
Smith trashed the power boat speed limits
imposed in 1991 by the Florida Department of
Environmental Protection to safeguard mana-
tees. The DEP and the Save the Manatee
Club asserted at the time that they could win
on appeal, and could meanwhile go on
enforcing the speed limits––but it’s been open
season ever since. By mid-March a study of
Brevard County boaters found that 25% were
speeding right by the limit signs.
“The court finds the language defin-
ing slow speed so vague that a person of com-
mon intelligence must guess at its meaning
and may differ as to its application,” Smith
wrote. He also argued that the DEP is obliged
to prove that manatees actually inhabit areas
where boat speed limits are posted, and
should show cause why designated high-
speed corridors shouldn’t be routed through
the manatee protection zones, as if the slow-
moving sirenians could be taught to avoid
such corridors any more than oppossums can
be taught to stay out of busy streets.
Smith’s ruling aquitted DeLand Fish Camp owner
Rick Rawlins, charged twice in 13 months for allegedly
breaking the speed limit on the Hontoon Dead River. It had
no formal precedential value, but wise-use wiseguys across
the nation ballyhooed it on talk shows, online forums, and in
print as a signal victory over allegedly excessive regulation.
The finer points of law got lost in the uproar.
About one million power boats compete with mana-
tees for aquatic rights-of-way in Florida. Even before Smith
struck down the speed limits, just 11 of Florida’s 67 counties
had any limits in effect, enforced haphazardly by 283 Florida
Marine Patrol officers plus 215 Florida Game and Fresh
Water officers––about one officer per 2,000 vessels.
As unpopular as speed limits are with the boaters,
the alternatives are less popular still. One would be closing
waters inhabited by manatees to all boating. That would
cover the entire coast of the Florida peninsula plus the
Everglades corridor, and would have no chance of accep-
tance even if someone were to seriously propose it. Another,
raised from time to time for 60 years, would be mandatory
installation of propeller guards. Since only about half of the
manatees killed by boats are actually hit by the propellers,
guards would reduce but not prevent deaths. However, the
Miami Herald reported on March 24, “Boat manufacturers
resist the idea, claiming that the guards hamper engine per-
formance and speed. Owners who do install the protective
devices often have ended up suing major manufacturers after
losing their engine warranty.”
History, biology
Officially, manatees have been protected since the
eighteenth century, when England declared Florida to be a
manatee sanctuary in an apparent strike at Spanish smugglers
and slave-traders, who killed manatees by the shipload for
food. The state of Florida adopted a manatee protection law
for the animals’ own sake in 1893, strengthened in 1907 with
the imposition of a $500 fine for killing or molesting one. In
1907 money, that fine was as substantial as the $20,000
penalties imposed by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection
Act and the 1973 Endangered Species Act.
And it was just about as ineffective, because then as
well as now, virtually all human killings of manatees have
been judged accidental.
Found in dwindling numbers across the West Indies,
and once distributed throughout the tropics, manatees are
slow breeders. They reach sexual maturity at age nine as a
rule, though some females may be capable of reproduction at
age five. Bearing females produce just one calf every two to
five years, after a 13-month gestation. Cold snaps, danger-
ous to all manatees, are particularly deadly to the young,
says Loren Fish, who as supervisor of animal care at Sea
World of Florida in Orlando is responsible for the largest
group of manatees likely to survive––15 rescued from distress
situations and two born at the facility.
“When the water gets below 68 degrees, the young
can’t tolerate it,” Fish says. “They develop pneumonia and
stop eating.” Unusually cold weather killed 53 manatee
calves in 1990, the same as the number of manatees killed by
boats that year––the only year that boat-related deaths didn’t
head the list. Fortunately the warm-water discharge areas
around coastal power plants provide temporary manatee
refuges during routine cold snaps. “These areas are heavily
monitored,” Fish confirms. Such monitoring revealed both
bad news and good news earlier this year. The bad news, in
January, was that only 1,443 manatees were discovered, one
of the lowest counts on record. The good news was that
1,822 turned up in a February recount, one of the highest
counts ever. But the variance also told biologists that their
margin of counting error is so high that records showing the
population is up from about 800 over the past 20 years may
only reflect improved if still imperfect counting
methods––not an actual increase in manatee numbers.
Instead, manatees could be holding even or further declining.
Captive breeding
Manatees breed so readily in captivity that the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service forbade mingling of the sexes at
captive facilities in 1991, to prevent overcrowding. Yet
restoring the wild population through captive breeding is not
yet a viable option, despite a decade of attempts. Miami
Seaquarium vet Jesse White in 1984 placed two captive-born
manatees in holding pens in the Homosassa River, then
released them in 1986, after they appeared to be capable of
feeding themselves. As of July 1990, he told People maga-
zine, “I believe they’re still out there.” But because of a lack
of confirmed follow-up sightings, U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service manatee recovery coordinator Robert Turner has pro-
nounced them dead. Another experimental release, in Puerto
Rico, failed when the manatee starved to death.
“It’s like taking a pet and releasing it into the for-
est,” Turner told Craig Quintana of the Orlando Sentinel.
“They have no experience at all on anything but romaine let-
tuce in a concrete tank. When he ran out of lettuce, he didn’t
eat. We just thought they’d start eating other vegetation.”
A related problem, Fish adds, is that “We don’t yet
know how they learn their migration patterns.” If seasonal
migration isn’t instinctive, captive-born manatees might be
caught too far north to survive when winter weather hits.
Formerly wild manatees are believed to do better.
Of about 135 ill, injured, or orphaned manatees received at
Sea World since 1973, 47 have been returned to the wild,
including three who were released earlier this year, wearing
tags and radio transponders monitored by USFWS via satelite.
Hoping to improve the odds, Sea World and
USFWS last summer set up a $40,000, 4.5-acre “halfway sta-
tion” for manatees in the Banana River, between the Kennedy
Space Center and Cape Canaveral. The idea is to acclimate
manatees to their natural diet of sea grass before turning them
loose. “Their weights are checked after one month,” explains
Fish. “If they’ve lost weight, we keep them and try the
release again later.” About 50 manatees, currently distrib-
uted among five Florida stranding rescue centers, are consid-
ered potential release candidates.
Recovery plan
The USFWS on April 6 proposed a second revision
of the Florida manatee recovery plan, and extended the pub-
lic comment period to June 5. Persons wishing to comment
may obtain copies of the proposed revised plan from David J.
Wesley, Field Supervisor, Jacksonville Field Office,
USFWS, 6620 Southpoint Drive S., Suite 310, Jacksonville,
FL 32216; 904-232-2580.
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