For Immediate Release
Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
Feds Okay Tourists Swimming With Manatees
Fish & Wildlife Service Rejects PEER Petition to End "Swim-With" Permits
WASHINGTON - While the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service concedes growing concerns
with tourists being allowed to swim with endangered Florida manatees,
the agency has rejected a petition to ban the practice or impose new
safeguards, according to Public Employees for Environmental
Responsibility (PEER). In July, PEER had petitioned the agency to stop
giving out commercial "swim-with" permits, adopt rules that forbid
swimming with the manatees and safeguard key manatee breeding areas.
In a letter dated August 25, 2009, the Fish & Wildlife
Service (FWS) indicated that it would take no action at this time,
although it had yet to make a decision on whether to designate Kings
Bay, Three Sisters Springs and Homosassa Springs as critical habitat
for the manatee, an action that would restrict swimming in those areas
during winter months.
Most significantly, FWS is refusing to directly prohibit manatee
"swim-with" programs that promote direct encounters in manatee lagoons.
In its letter, the agency conceded that complaints were increasing and
that law enforcement "officers do believe, though, that existing laws
could better define harassment" (harassment of endangered species is
already illegal). Nonetheless, FWS argued that its commercial permits
provide "a significant management tool which currently minimizes
harassment." In addition, FWS said it was taking unspecified
"additional steps to better manage manatee harassment concerns."
"This was a ‘don't worry, be happy' non-response that failed to
provide any indication of precisely what the Service is doing or why
anyone should believe it will work," stated PEER Staff Counsel
Christine Erickson, who filed the petition. "We have tried to take a
cooperative approach, asking the Fish & Wildlife Service to
exercise its discretion to better protect the manatee; so now we will
have to resort to litigation in order to obtain any additional
PEER contends that the current practices are manifestly ineffective
in protecting the manatee from tens of thousands of people poking,
chasing, standing on or kicking manatees, as well as separating mothers
from calves each year. Since it filed the petition, PEER has received
numerous videos from citizens showing swimmers abusing manatees. Yet in
its letter, FWS stated it "identified very few events that warranted
the issuance of citations," dismissing increased complaints as
reflecting "the public's poor understanding of what constitutes
harassment under the law."
"How can the public understand the existing regulations when the
Fish & Wildlife Service admits their own officers need better legal
guidance?" asked Erickson. "The real problem seems to be the Service
evading its legal responsibility to do what is necessary to preserve
and protect this iconic Florida species."
PEER is also filing a Freedom of Information Act request with FWS
for documents describing what "additional steps" it claims to be taking
as well as evidence of why the agency has reason to assert that these
steps will work. FWS records previously obtained by PEER showed
harassment on the increase while attempts to minimize violations
through permits and enforcement have been highly unsuccessful.
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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.