Pressured by the Pacific Legal Foundation, representing the Florida power boat lobby, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on January 7, 2016 announced at a Miami Seaquarium media conference that it will propose to downlist Florida manatees from “endangered” to “threatened” species status. The proposal will be submitted to a public hearing on February 20, 2016. The actual downlisting would not come before 2017.
“Relisting the slow-moving, speed bump-shaped marine mammals as a ‘threatened’ species would not change any current protections for manatees,” assessed Jennifer Kay of Associated Press, but Tampa Bay Times environment reporter Craig Pittman, who has followed the manatee issue for longer and in greater depth than any other journalist, was skeptical.
“The decision is largely based on a computer model about the species’ future that does not include key information about threats it faces,” Pittman wrote. “Federal and state wildlife officials repeatedly said the change in status would have no effect on the boat speed limits and refuge boundaries now in place, but Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, doesn’t buy it.”
Said Rose, a former state and federal manatee biologist, “I know how much pressure they’re going to be under to make changes. This will facilitate a rollback in protections and produce a higher level of manatee mortality.”
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Research Institute, conducting annual aerial surveys of the Florida manatee population since 1974, found a record 6,033 manatees in 2015––but of 405 known manatee deaths during the year, watercraft were known to have killed 87. The only higher numbers of manatees killed by watercraft were 97 in 2009, and 88 in 2011. The highest manatee death counts were 830 in 2013, when a red tide hit the Indian River Lagoon population, and 766 in 2010, a year that included a record statewide cold snap.
Pittman is author of Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species (2009), reviewed by ANIMALS 24-7 below.
Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species
by Craig Pittman
University Press of Florida, 2009.
448 pages. $27.50 hardcover.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Longtime St. Petersburg a.k.a. Tampa Bay Times environment reporter Craig Pittman not only wrote the definitive book about Florida manatee cultural history and politics back in 2009, but managed to scoop me in resurrecting key passages to lead off a retrospective review.
Drawn together from news coverage drafted almost entirely for St. Petersburgers, Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species was published in book form by the University Press of Florida as part of their ongoing Florida History & Culture series. The series reaches mainly Floridian intellectuals, a species reportedly almost as rare as manatees, but kept in existence by emigration to Florida by educated retirees.
Manatee Insanity, however, may now be relevant to the political decision-making of every environmentally concerned American, depending on how far former Florida governor Jeb Bush gets in his quest for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
Son of one Bush & brother of another
Son of former U.S. president George H. Bush, and younger brother of former U.S. president George W. Bush, “Jeb Bush hasn’t said much about the environmental issues facing America,” Pittman wrote on August 23, 2015, as this review was being drafted.
Jeb Bush “has waffled on climate change,” Pittman charged, “and supported approval of the Keystone pipeline and drilling in the Arctic, and that has been about it. But when he was a gubernatorial candidate in 1998, he took pains to show his concern about the environment — particularly about one of the state’s signature animals, the manatee. He even helped SeaWorld release a pair of rehabilitated manatees, one of them named Little Jeb.
“Yet when Bush had a chance to solve one of the biggest problems in manatee protection, he backed off, deferring instead to his own conservative ideology.
“One of the great what-ifs”
“What happened with Bush and manatees,” Pittman wrote, “remains one of the great what-ifs of Florida environmental history and provides a window into how he might deal with similar situations as president.”
Pittman then paraphrased the very passages of Manatee Insanity that I had marked for quotation.
As Pittman explained, “Bush took office [as Florida governor] in January 1999 at a crucial moment for manatee protection. The Save the Manatee Club and other environmental groups had spent years building a coalition that could take both the state and federal government to court. They based their lawsuits on the rising death toll of manatees clobbered by boats and the continuing loss of habitat to waterfront development.
“The groups were finally ready to take their first legal step toward suing in May 1999, but Save the Manatee Club co-founder Jimmy Buffett,” the singing icon of the Florida Keys, “wanted to personally inform Bush about what was being planned.”
Boat slips on hold
Bush reacted badly. “Undeterred, the Save the Manatee Club and its coalition filed two suits on Jan. 13, 2000 — one against the federal government, the other against Florida,” Pittman recounted. “While the legal action got rolling, 800 federal permits for new boat slips across Florida were put on hold.”
The boating industry proposed, in lieu of restrictions on the number of boats in the water, a surcharge on boat registration that would enable the state to more effectively enforce speed limits in manatee habitat.
“But when Bush heard about the proposal, he rejected it,” wrote Pittman.
“It smells like a tax,” Bush said.
Continued Pittman, “The son of the president notorious for saying ‘Read my lips — no new taxes!’ would rather cut a tax than promote one. Bush’s dislike of taxes proved stronger than his love for manatees.
“The lawsuits proceeded, forcing state and federal agencies to agree to set up new speed zones and refuges — something the state’s boaters intensely disliked.
Appealed to Big Brother
“By 2002, Bush, running for re-election, changed sides.”
Appealing to Big Brother, Jeb Bush received help from the George W. Bush administration in staving off the proposed new restrictions on boating until after Jeb was re-elected.
“That year, boaters in Florida killed 95 manatees, a record,” Pittman recalled. “In his eight years in office, 650 manatees died after being hit by speeding boats. Even today, Florida’s wildlife agency struggles to put enough officers on the water to enforce the speed zones designed to protect them.”
But Jeb Bush and his campaign spokespersons allege that his tenure helped manatees, scientifically recognized as endangered since 1967, to recover.
“Jeb Bush didn’t raise boater taxes, forced the local passage of manatee protection plans, increased law enforcement on water, held a manatee summit to bring folks together, and today we have 6,000 manatees,” Bush press secretary Kristy Campbell told Pittman, alleging that this is “the most manatees since the aerial surveys began in 1991.”
Improved chance of survival?
Indeed, the U.S. Geological Survey on May 20, 2015 released study data suggesting that, “Based on the data available in 2012, the long-term probability of the species surviving has increased compared to a 2007 analysis, as a result of higher aerial survey estimates of population size, improved methods of tracking survival rates, and better estimates of the availability of warm-water refuges.
“Our analysis using data from 2007 estimated that there was nearly a 9% chance of Florida manatee numbers falling below 250 adults over the next 100 years on either the Atlantic or Gulf Coast,” said lead study author Michael Runge. “The current analysis, using data available in 2012, has the estimate dropping to a fraction of 1%, but we need to be cautious,” Runge warned. “The 2012 analysis does not account for the extensive loss of seagrass habitat in Indian River Lagoon in 2011 and 2012 nor the severe red tide event in the Southwest region of Florida in 2013.”
Loving manatees to death
And that is not all. Many of the Floridians and Florida visitors who are not running over manatees in speed boats are loving them to death with harassment, disrupting feeding and reproductive routines by swimming with them, fondling them, and crowding too close to them in pursuit of photographs.
“Manatees, and the tourism connected with them, are credited for bringing $20 million to $30 million into local coffers annually,” Pittman’s Tampa Bay Times colleague Barbara Behrendt reported on April 10, 2015, but even as the Crystal River manatee herd has slowly increased to 1,000, the numbers of people watching their every movement has grown from 67,000 in 2010 to 265,000 in 2014.
Evolution of manatee science
The most engrossing part of Manatee Insanity details the evolution of manatee science from the first serious observations by Joe Moore in 1949, through the work of Woody Hartman and Buddy Powell, beginning in the 1960s, and on to the present.
Because Florida manatees tend to favor dark, murky water, remain submerged most of the time, and are strongly nocturnal, they have never been easily counted. Moore discovered after several years of research that individual manatees can be identified by the scar patterns they acquire from boat propellers. Hartman was first to do an aerial manatee survey. Increasing budgets for manatee research and improvements in aerial photo reconnaissance technology have gradually improved the accuracy of Florida manatee counts, and have discovered more and more manatees, too, by locating more of the population who previously remained hidden.
Better counts vs. population growth
But becoming able to count more of the manatees remaining in Florida waters is not to be confused with discovering an actual population increase, a nicety that Pittman explains and emphasizes. The boating industry, Jeb Bush, and his backers prefer to conflate the improvements in observational technique with manatee population recovery –– but if the manatee population is recovering, the mortality pattern would have a rather different shape.
Over the past 10 years, according to Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission reports, speed boats have killed not fewer than 73 manatees in a year, with a peak of 97 in 2009, the only year that the toll fluctuated by more than 11 from the average of 84.
So far, Pittman told ANIMALS 24-7, Manatee Insanity is “the only one of my books that didn’t sell well enough to merit a paperback edition –– although everyone tells me they like the title more than the titles of my other two,” Paving Paradise: Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands & The Failure of No Net Loss, co-authored with Matthew Waite, and The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, & The World’s Most Beautiful Orchid.
This may change, as the Jeb Bush presidential candidacy elevates the profile and significance of Pittman’s meticulous documentation of the Bush record on manatees. Ironically, the portions of Manatee Insanity that presently drag, reciting endless hearings and other meeting, may have the most significance in the coming election year, since these are the chapters that introduce many of the members of the Jeb Bush entourage, illustrating who funds Bush, with what motives and patterns of behavior.
Much as readers might like Manatee Insanity to conclude with some reassurance that manatees will live happily ever after, it does not and cannot. This is something that at present we cannot know. The balance of Florida economic interests may at last be tipping in favor of manatees. Conversely, the reality that Bush is a credible candidate, and is even perceived as more moderate than some of his strongest rivals, shows that those who equate “rights” with the license to act irresponsibly toward others, both animal and human, still have formidable political strength.
Instead of a happy ending, Pittman introduces Snooty, a manatee born on July 21, 1948 in a beached ship that housed the long defunct Miami Aquarium and Tackle Company.
Sixty years old when Manatee Insanity went to press, Snooty was recently honored for reaching age 67. As Pittman points out, he is the one manatee on record who lacks propeller scars.