Mad About Manatees

By staff December 1, 2004

As the winter sun set on the Gulf Coast on Dec. 2, 2002, a chill wind rippled across the Caloosahatchee River and swirled through the streets of downtown Fort Myers. Just after 6 p.m., about 3,000 people surged through the doors of the city's riverfront convention center. Some waved signs: "Don't Tread On Me!'' "Don't Give Up the Ship!'' "Save Our Jobs!'' One man, dressed in red, white and blue, toted a large white cross labeled "Property Rights.''

There were skinny teen-agers and white-haired retirees, scruffy sailors in tattered jeans, businessmen in sharply creased khakis, a woman in black leather pants and stiletto heels. What brought them together on this cool evening was white-hot anger. They were upset about new rules that they believed would hamper their livelihoods and lifestyles, all to protect a shy and homely marine mammal. One protester wore a T-shirt that summed it up perfectly: "Stop the Manatee Insanity!''

For four years, Florida has been convulsed by a bitter conflict over the gentle manatee, and at this public hearing the conflict hit its emotional peak.

The fight started in court. In 2000, environmental activists from the Save the Manatee Club joined forces with animal welfare groups such as the Humane Society to file a pair of lawsuits against state and federal officials. The suits accused the government of doing little to stop speeding boats from killing manatees, while permitting waterfront development to wipe out the places where the manatees live.

Rather than fight, state and federal officials settled out of court. The settlements led to new restrictions on boating and development, two activities crucial to Florida's economy. That generated tremendous resentment among many of the state's nearly 1 million boaters as well as marina owners, dock-builders and boat brokers, not to mention the powerful real estate industry. The resulting clash between determined environmental groups and impassioned boaters created what the New York Times declared "one of the fiercest fights over an endangered species since loggers in the Pacific Northwest strung mock spotted owls on the grills of their trucks.''

Southwest Florida has been the front line for much of the battle. Nearly half the state's manatee population lives along a stretch of the Gulf Coast that runs from Tampa Bay down to the Ten Thousand Islands. Over the past decade Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties have seen a tremendous boom in human population, with an accompanying increase in the number of boats zooming through coastal waterways.

Scientists say the manatee population in other parts of the state is at least stable and may even be increasing. But they believe the Southwest Florida manatee population is in decline, because every year more manatees here die than are born.

So, as a result of the settlements, federal wildlife officials had proposed restricting the building of docks throughout Southwest Florida. They theorized that more docks equal more boats, which would mean more manatee deaths. They said they would probably turn down 37 percent of new dock permits over the next five years, inflicting a multimillion-dollar impact on the region's economy.

They scheduled a series of public hearings, the first of which would take place by the Caloosahatchee, the river where over the past 30 years more manatees have died than in any other waterway in Florida. The first speaker was one of Florida's most powerful state legislators, Lindsay Harrington, a bluff and folksy politician who once compared environmentalists to watermelons: "Green on the outside, red on the inside!''

Harrington, a real estate agent and former Punta Gorda mayor, opened the hearing with a bang. "Many of us,'' he roared, "believe this goes too damn far!'' The crowd cheered.

Another popular speaker was Jim Kalvin, a burly dock-builder from Naples whose shaggy blond hair and beard made him look more like a Viking than the founder of Florida's fastest-growing boating rights group, Standing Watch. A onetime marina owner, Kalvin had managed to meld an effective organization out of groups that sometimes don't get along: yachtsmen, live-aboard sailors, personal watercraft enthusiasts and recreational boaters.

At the hearing, Kalvin urged federal officials to toss out the entire settlement with the Save the Manatee Club. Invoking the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Kalvin spoke about "the freedoms we all hold dear'' and then said, "We're dealing with a plaintiff organization that goes to court to circumvent those freedoms!''

Later, when a handful of environmental activists spoke in favor of the restrictions, they were booed and told to go hug a tree.

Opposition to the proposed dock rules reached the highest levels of government. Gov. Jeb Bush met with U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton to complain. Ultimately, federal officials dropped the proposed restrictions-but not, they said, because of their unpopularity. They said they dropped the dock rules because turning down 37 percent of all permits would still not do enough to protect Southwest Florida's manatees.

Manatees might seem an unlikely cause for so much political friction. Slow-moving creatures with a Mr. Magoo squint, manatees have a body like a dumpling and a spoon-shaped tail. Their vaguely feminine shape led ancient sailors to identify them as mermaids, but the modern eye sees a less alluring creature. One writer described them as "a giant yam with flippers.''

They tend to be solitary animals, except when a dozen or so congregate for breeding or when cold weather forces scores of them to huddle together in a warm spring or near a power plant's discharge pipe to stay alive. Like dolphins and whales, they are warm-blooded creatures that nurse their young. They spend their lives in the water, but when they are awake they stick their gray snouts out about every five minutes to breathe. That's when they are easiest for humans to spot-or to hit with a boat.

They have no enemies but us. Native Americans and early settlers used to kill them for their succulent meat. By the 1880s nature writers were warning of the animal's imminent extinction. In 1893 one of Miami's founding fathers, real estate mogul Frederick Morse, pushed a measure through the Legislature that banned the killing of manatees without a permit. Still, poaching remained common until at least the 1940s because of lax enforcement.

In 1967, when federal wildlife biologists included the manatee on their first-ever list of endangered species, they acknowledged that they had no idea how many were left, "due to the fact that it is one of the most difficult totally aquatic mammals to observe in the wild." Nevertheless, they said, it should still be considered endangered because the species, which once ranged from the Carolinas to Texas, now appeared to persist primarily in "heavily used boating areas" in Florida.

When Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, Florida's manatees were supposed to be protected from being killed, maimed or harassed. Yet in 30 years federal authorities have prosecuted only one case. In 1984, a fishing-boat captain from the Stuart area was caught with a hunk of butchered manatee meat, and bragged about how good it tasted. He was tossed in the slammer for six months.

Overall, the law has done little to stem the number of manatee deaths due to boating. Between 1976 and 2003, more than 4,000 manatees have turned up dead in Florida. Some were killed by red tide, cold stress or other causes. But state officials say about a quarter were run over by boats, making them the leading cause of death.

The number of registered boats in Florida is nearly 1 million, and tourists bring in thousands more every year. Manatees are killed by speedboats, fishing boats, tugs, barges, even cruise ships, all of which can move faster than a manatee.

Nearly all dead manatees are brought to a small beige building in St. Petersburg where a team of state scientists dissects them to determine the cause of death. Call it the CSI of sea cows. The biologist in charge is Tom Pitchford, who met his wife while they were pulling a dying manatee from a creek bank in Sarasota. Last year Pitchford and his colleagues handled 380 carcasses. Boats killed 73, down from 2002's record high of 95.

"If you can't understand why they're dying, you're really working in the dark about how to save them," Pitchford says. "The lab's work is an unprecedented effort to document every animal dead in a species. It's the most intensely studied marine mammal we have, but there's so much we don't know."

Pitchford has seen manatees that died from cracked skulls and punctured lungs, the result of being clobbered by a speeding boat. Sometimes the spinning boat propeller and the skeg below it slice through the animal's thick hide, leaving deep wounds.

Not all boat strikes are fatal. Scientists figure about two-thirds of the manatees swimming around Florida's bays, rivers, springs and canals have been hit by boats and survived. Many carry multiple scars from repeat collisions. Pitchford tells of one that had scars from being hit by boats 49 times. The 50th proved fatal.

Researchers at Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota recently documented for the first time that the lethargic animals do attempt to get out of the way, but just can't move as quickly as the boats that run them over so often.

Their injuries have become part of their identity. To the human eye, manatees tend to look identical. In 1949, as boating became a popular form of recreation, an Everglades National Park biologist named Joe Moore discovered that he could tell one manatee from another by studying their propeller scars. The scar patterns are nearly as distinctive as fingerprints, if fingerprints were carved out with a buzz saw.

Moore's method of identification remains the standard. In a tiny U.S. Geological Survey office in Gainesville, homemade wooden bookshelves hold rows of binders containing pictures of about 2,000 manatees that have been identified by their scars.

The keeper of this manatee mugbook is Cathy Beck, a petite woman with straight, brown hair who seems painfully earnest until you notice the poster on her office wall of an unscathed manatee asking, "What, me worry?'' Clicking through her computer, Beck calls up photos of Popeye, a manatee with a slash so deep on one side that all its muscles were exposed; Phalanges, whose shredded tail resembled waving fingers; and Whatamess, named for the complex crosshatch of wounds on its back.

"I've seen animals that you just can't believe are still alive,'' Beck says. "It's a horrible way to get our information.''

Beck's 30-year collection of photos forms the most complete portrait of any marine mammal species in the world. Climb a ladder to the highest shelf in her office and you'll find the earliest pictures in the collection: black-and-white snapshots taken in the late 1960s around a sleepy little Gulf Coast town called Crystal River by a wiry teen-ager who happened to be an avid boater.

James "Buddy'' Powell loved nothing better than spending all day aboard his speedy Boston Whaler, roaming around the hidden coves and gin-clear springs that gave Crystal River its name. One day in 1967, when he was 13, he spotted a longhaired man sitting in a Sears johnboat, staring intently at the water.

"He wasn't fishing,'' says Powell, now a Sarasota-based manatee biologist for the conservation group Wildlife Trust. "He wasn't diving. He was clearly out of place."

Powell asked the mystery boater if he needed help. "No,'' the man said in an accent clearly foreign to rural Florida.

The man was Daniel "Woodie'' Hartman, a Maine native who was just beginning a seminal study of the manatee-at the time a poorly understood species. The book he later wrote is still regarded as the bible for manatee biologists.

But in 1967 Hartman was just a Cornell University graduate student with little field experience. He soon realized he needed help from someone who knew the local waterways, someone with a faster boat-say, a Boston Whaler. So he hired Powell as his assistant, equipping him with a second-hand underwater camera to snap photos which years later formed the basis for Beck's database.

Hartman and Powell spent two years swimming with Crystal River's manatees, getting so close that more than once a female grasped Powell's mask to give him a whiskery kiss.

In 1968 Hartman wrote a story for National Geographic about Florida's "mermaids in peril,'' which attracted the attention of French filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau. His 1971 documentary on manatees highlighted the threats to their survival, boosting their popularity and spawning increased efforts to protect them.

Hartman's next project sowed the seeds for the current controversy. In the summer of 1972, with Powell again working as his assistant, Hartman attempted to survey Florida's entire manatee population from a Piper Cub.

They toted up all the animals they saw, then tried to account for the ones they couldn't see because of murky water or poor weather. Hartman calculated there must be only 600 to 800 manatees in Florida. Hartman now says that was at best a "guesstimate,'' and Powell says their calculations were "just full of errors.''

Still, opponents of increased restrictions on boating and development cite Hartman's estimate in arguing that the number of manatees has ballooned over 30 years.

In 1991, Florida officials launched what would become an annual aerial survey of the state's manatees. Unlike Hartman, they did it in winter, when manatees tend to congregate wherever they find warm water. The state biologist in charge of the survey, Bruce Ackerman, assembled a score of volunteers and repeatedly sent them out in the coldest weather, often on short notice. Their planes would circle repeatedly as the biologists tried to count snouts from 500 feet up.

The numbers fluctuated wildly according to the weather. Within the space of a week, the count might differ by more than a third. But it usually stuck between 1,000 and 2,500 manatees. Ackerman repeatedly cautioned everyone that this was a minimum number at best, and there were likely lots more. But some overzealous environmental activists seized on the aerial survey figures and treated them as a maximum. The annual count, they said, showed that manatees were a dying breed. Careless reporters picked up the theme, as did politicians.

"There's an endangered species that's close to being extinct in Florida waters and I don't want to be a part of that,'' Gov. Bush said in 2000 when he temporarily blocked a marina expansion at the Sarasota Yacht Club. "It's my favorite mammal.''

Then, in January 2001, the researchers counted so many manatees that even they were shocked: 3,276. "We kind of had to huddle and decide if we really believed our own numbers and how to present it,'' Ackerman says.

He released the figures just six days after the Save the Manatee Club had settled one of its two lawsuits. Now boaters turned the tables on the environmental groups, contending that the population had gone up, not down. They said any increase in boating deaths, rather than being evidence of an alarming trend, instead simply reflected the growth of the species. New boating restrictions would not be necessary, they said.

In fact, they contended, it was time to stop calling the manatee endangered and take it off the list of protected species. In 2001 a sport-fishing group, the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, petitioned state officials to reclassify the manatee, a prelude to making a similar request of federal officials. If the manatee were no longer endangered, there would be less reason for new restrictions to protect it.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has debated the matter three times, and three times postponed a decision. Some boaters grumbled the postponements were designed to avoid making it a political issue in a crucial state for the Presidential race. The commissioners, all gubernatorial appointees, denied having political motives.

According to Ackerman, both sides of the debate are playing a misleading numbers game. The total manatee population probably has increased in the past 30 years, he says, thanks to efforts to cut down on water pollution and to protect the animals from speeding boats. But the number of manatees dying from all causes, including boat collisions, has risen so high that, statewide, it equals the number of births-thanks in large part to the decline in Southwest Florida.

Ackerman compares the situation to trying to live on a fixed income while expenses continue to rise. "You're taking away their ability to grow,'' he says.

But opponents of the restrictions on development and boating say Florida cannot afford to lose its ability to grow, either.

Nowhere in Florida is the conflict between the desire to protect manatees and the desire to continue growth greater than in Southwest Florida, where backyard docks and boating are considered as essential to life as sunshine and fresh air.

When the state imposed its first restrictions on boating in Manatee County in September, the move drew howls of protest from boaters who considered it an assault on their freedom. State wildlife commissioners were not thrilled about taking that step, either, but noted that federal officials were holding up dock permits.

"The feds are holding this over our heads to bring the counties to the table," grumbled Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto. He said, "Developers are beating down my door" to do something to get rid of the permit freeze.

Nowhere has the manatee fight been more contentious than Lee County, which has more than 1,000 miles of natural shoreline and 232 square miles of inshore waters, thanks in part to a complex system of canals dug in Cape Coral in the 1960s and 1970s. In 2001, federal officials authorized nearly 600 new dock permits, more than anywhere else in the state. And between 1998 and 2002, the number of boats registered there grew by 10,000, and last year topped 43,000-virtually all of them pleasure boats.

Four years of studies by Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory have found that Lee County has so many boats now, "it's like a boat parade'" on weekends, says researcher Jay Gorzelany. "It averages out to one boat going through every eight seconds."

In the last decade the number of boat-related manatee deaths in Southwest Florida has risen by an annual average of more than 10 percent a year. In 2003, Lee had more manatees killed by boats than any other county in Florida. Still, last year's number of boat-related fatalities, nine, was an improvement over 2002, when Lee County boaters killed 23 manatees.

But manatee-protection rules are about as popular among some in Southwest Florida- particularly in Lee-as Prohibition was in 1920s Chicago, and sometimes as feebly enforced. During one routine weekend patrol near the mouth of the Caloosahatchee, state wildlife officers pulled over a boat for going too fast in a manatee zone only to discover its pilot was a Lee sheriff's deputy they frequently worked with. He was wearing a Krispy Kreme doughnut hat and toting a beer. They let him go with a warning.

"We've caught several deputies," one of the wildlife officers said with a shrug. "We don't want to start a war with them."

One Lee official decided to take on the whole manatee protection apparatus. Courts administrator William "Doug'" Wilkinson, who has testified he routinely fishes with local judges, took his 19-foot boat into the Caloosahatchee and violated a manatee speed zone to get a ticket. He then challenged the legality of the manatee regulations because, he argued, the state had usurped his "constitutional right to travel.'"

Some local lawyers then got their own tickets and joined Wilkinson in challenging the zones. Last year they persuaded a judge to toss out some of the state's Lee County speed zones as unsupported by science. Because of the lack of waterway regulation, federal wildlife officials halted new dock permits.

For boaters it was a Pyrrhic victory. Federal wildlife officials, fearing the court's ruling would mean open season on manatees, jumped in and imposed similar speed zones-but with higher-priced speeding tickets. For local real-estate interests, though, the federal zones were a blessing. With the new zones in place, federal officials said they could be assured that manatees were receiving sufficient protection. They promised to again issue dock permits in Lee County.

While boaters and local governments such as Cape Coral may be headed to court with manatee-related suits, the organization that started all the manatee insanity is pulling back. From now on, Save the Manatee Club leaders promise, they will rely more on negotiation than litigation. Longtime club co-chairwoman Helen Spivey says the 40,000-member organization has not been hurt by the boater backlash, but she fears for the animal the club wants to protect.

"Anytime you're made the scapegoat in something, people don't look at you the same way,'" she says. "A lot of people were once awed by the manatee. But now a lot of boaters view them as a pest.''

Boaters and environmentalists do share some goals. Both want the state to boost the number of officers patrolling the waterways to enforce existing rules. Both say they oppose rampant development of the state's coastal areas. Both want more effort devoted to cleaning up pollution.

Still, every attempt to find common ground has fallen short. A state-sponsored mediation in 2003, called a "manatee summit,'' collapsed when Save the Manatee Club officials balked at boaters' demands that they give up some of the things they had won in federal court. That led to a bitter condemnation of the club by state wildlife commissioners, some of whom even contend that there are already too many manatees.

Yet even as the controversy heats up, one fact remains: Fewer manatees are dying because of boats. In 2002, boat deaths hit an all-time high of 95. But in 2003, only 73 were killed by boats, the lowest number since 1998.

State biologist Pitchford says the drop could be caused by the nation's economic woes putting a damper on recreational boating. But Save the Manatee Club executive director Judith Vallee thinks the controversy over manatee protection helped make boaters more mindful that they're sharing the waterways with slow-moving marine mammals.

In other words, maybe all that manatee insanity has actually saved a few sea cows.

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