For Immediate Release
Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
Move to End Harassment of Florida Manatees
Legal Filing to Outlaw Manatee "Swim-With" Dives by 100,000 Tourists Annually
WASHINGTON - The endangered Florida manatee is being illegally besieged by hordes
of tourists who are allowed to swim with the animal, according to a
formal petition for rulemaking filed today by Public Employees for
Environmental Responsibility (PEER) with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife
Service (FWS) which issues permits sanctioning the practice. PEER is
demanding that the federal agency stop giving out commercial swim-with
permits, adopt rules that forbid swimming with the manatees and
safeguard key manatee breeding and resting areas.
Every year an estimated 100,000 tourists participate in manatee
"swim-with" programs that promote direct encounters in manatee lagoons.
Studies indicate that approximately half of these human-manatee
interactions constitute harassment, with tourists routinely observed
poking, chasing, standing on or kicking manatees, as well as separating
mothers from calves.
Citing the anti-harassment mandates of laws such as the Florida
Manatee Sanctuary Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the
Endangered Species Act, PEER is formally petitioning FWS to halt
manatee swim-with programs. Besides numerous studies documenting the
harm to manatees, the PEER petition points to:
- Widespread non-compliance with FWS "recommended guidelines" advising against touching the mammals;
- Numerous complaints but virtually no prosecutions for manatee harassment; and
2007 recommendation by the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission that FWS adopt
regulations prohibiting the touching of animals, requiring that divers
not approach animals closer than 10 feet, and back away from animals
that approach them;
"The Fish & Wildlife Service has taken the attitude that because
no manatee has yet been killed by a swimmer, no agency action is
required," stated PEER Staff Counsel Christine Erickson referring to
minutes from an agency conference call on the issue that PEER obtained
through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. "The manatee is the only
endangered species that is treated like it belongs in a petting zoo."
The FWS actually licenses the swim-with program with special use
permits that it issues to local operators in the Crystal River area,
north of Clearwater. Despite news stories, videos and other reports,
FWS has not revoked permits or taken more than token action to curb
Significantly, the top FWS official in charge of the region that
includes Florida, Sam Hamilton, has been nominated by President Obama
to head the agency. PEER has been sharply critical of Hamilton's
"The Fish & Wildlife Service is the main
enabler for harassment of manatees," added Erickson, who drafted the
petition. "Unfortunately in recent years, the agency has placed
economic and political considerations ahead of its duty to protect
If FWS does not act on the PEER petition within a reasonable time it
will be subject to a lawsuit for failure to act. In addition, the
agency may be liable to suit for failure to effectively enforce manatee
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