Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Group Petitions to Ban Swim-with-Manatee Tours

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has formally petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ban swimming with manatees. According to a quote published on wtsp.com, the Florida director of PEER said, "The next stop would be litigation and we're keeping all options open at this point."

As a manatee scientist and conservationist, I have written to PEER encouraging them to re-examine their proposal to ban swimming with manatees. Here is my argument against the ban:

A ban on swim-with-manatee tour operations will have little or no impact on the overall conservation of manatees and manatee habitat in Florida. Resources would be much better spent working towards a viable compromise that reduces or eliminates manatee harassment, increases conservation awareness, recruits manatee advocates, and supports the local community. I honestly don't understand why PEER, or any other national-level organization, would take such a radical position on an issue that is primarily a problem in one small town, Crystal River, Florida.

Despite a prediction by Shackley (1992) that swim-with-manatee tours would be the final nail in the manatee's coffin, the manatee population in Crystal River has increased dramatically over the past 2 decades. As an alternative to banning a commercial industry the supports manatee conservation and provides a strong economic base in Crystal River, I would encourage all stakeholders to work together to establish limits of acceptable change, stricter rules, and stronger enforcement (see Sorice et al. 2003, 2006).

Most tour operators in Crystal River are strong advocates for manatee conservation. They educate and instill values in the general public and recruit new advocates for manatee conservation each day as a result of their tours. Yes, there are serious problems, but a ban on commercial swimming with manatees is not the solution.

First and foremost, the federal (USFWS) and state (FL FWCC) agencies MUST publish guidelines that are congruous, including a NO TOUCH rule! Documents published by the USFWS and the FL FWC do not agree. The FL FWC html document (http://myfwc.com/WildlifeHabitats/Manatee_ViewingGuide.htm) clearly says "look but don't touch" online but the PDF version does not (http://myfwc.com/docs/WildlifeHabitats/Manatee_FLTreasure_bklt.pdf).

The US FWS guidelines say don't poke, chase, kick, etc., which may leave the swimmer to think it's OK touch or pet gently. In a PR dated 12 March 2007 (http://www.fws.gov/northflorida/Releases-07/001-07-Joint-FWS-FWC-manattee-harassment-031207.htm) the US FWS says that intentionally touching manatees is illegal. But, the guidelines further down the press release and posted elsewhere only say "Never ride, chase, poke or surround manatees." In the US FWS Manatee Manners video (http://www.fws.gov/video/FLASH/manateemanners.html), swimmers are shown touching manatees during the clip that says "don't poke, etc.," again leaving the swimmer thinking that gentle touching is OK. This video should be re-done removing any clips that show swimmers touching manatees.

Yes, tighter rules are needed, including a requirement to use licensed guides, a no touch rule, and limits on the number of people in the habitat at any given time.

Yes, enforcement is lacking, but that could be dealt with through peer pressure, as well as through education and licensing processes. A lottery model, like the one for whale sharks in Belize, would work to control the number of people in the habitat during the peak season.

Of all the possible charismatic megafaunal ambassadors from the wild, manatees are absolutely the best suited to interact with humans. Let's work together with the tour operators and other resource users, not try to put them out of business!

Literature Cited

  • Shackley, M. 1992. Manatees and tourism in southern Florida: opportunity or threat? Journal of Environmental Management 34:257-265.
  • Sorice, M. G., C. S. Shafer, and D. Scott. 2003. Managing endangered species within the use/preservation paradox: understanding and defining harassment of the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus). Coastal Management 31:319-338.
  • Sorice, M. G., C. Scott Shafer, and R. B. Ditton. 2006. Managing endangered species within the use-preservation paradox: the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) as a tourism attraction. Environmental Management 37:69-83.

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