A: How about the “Environment”?
I hear it all the time – “…do you want to keep boating, or save manatees?” It’s as if the two are thought of as mutually exclusive. Generally, the one asking the question is working on the premise that manatees are truly and desperately endangered, and are also wonderful for the environment. They seem to believe that the more manatees we have, the better off our estuarine systems would be.
Thanks to the “educational” initiatives of groups like Save the Manatee Club, they have also accepted the premise that all boaters are careless wonton slobs – ignorant of environmental needs and sensitivities. That all boaters care about is their horsepower, their liquor, and going as fast as they can without regard to the surrounding habitat.
If you look honestly at history and best available science, however, you will not be lead to those conclusions on either the manatees or the boaters.
Of course, there has been a 40 year public relations campaign to smear boaters, and appeal to the emotions of well-meaning people all over the world who believe they are doing their part to save an “endangered” species.
Who doesn’t want to help the environment? As a Florida native with over 50 years of memories boating in South Florida and the Keys, I’ve seen my share of degradation of our waterways and estuaries. Farm run-off, highway runoff, coastal construction, and releases of water from Lake Okeechobee are the primary culprits of that demise. It still goes on and on, but those who profess to want to “save the manatee” seem to turn a blind eye to these threats, even as obvious as they are. And I’m getting weary of the accusations from the “Club” and activist regulators who blame all of the ills in the environment on boaters.
It’s much easier to find a villain to blame for the species “predicament” than it is to partake in meaningful and arduous research and field studies. And in this discussion, that villain would be the boating community.
Room in this column prohibits a lot of what I would like to say, but there are some points that have to be made. First of all, scientists don’t even agree with each other about how many manatees there are, how many there should be, or how many there used to be (pre-columbian times). Nobody will discuss what the “carrying capacity” is, or should be. Manatees eat between 150 and 200 pounds of aquatic vegetation each day. Florida has over 9000 (minimum observed population) animals – which will eat a minimum of 675 tons of aquatic vegetation every day.
How large an area of seagrass yields a ton of vegetation? That varies on different types of seagrass. But it has to be a statistically significant area given the cumulative impact of being gazed 24/7 365 days per year.
Seagrass all around the State is disappearing. Well-known areas in Collier County that used to have lush seagrass beds include Rookery Bay, Naples Bay, Round Key, Dismal Key, Panther Key, Pumpkin Bay, Dollar Bay, and just off the shoreline of Keewaydin Island. Those areas are now bare. Mud and sand bottom is what exists today.
Is this all due to manatees? Probably not. I’m sure the land-based pollution mentioned previously had something to do with some of that. But this brings us to a new question – what are the manatees going to eat going forward? For this discussion, it matters not why the grass is gone – the fact is that it is gone!
Are boats a threat to manatees? The honest answer is “yes”. Are there threats to the species that are more dire than boating collisions? Unquestionably, yes. And it begins with the agencies who have refused to look at the honest history, and the facts as they are developing. And it all begins with food.
Seagrass studies have been done by non-profit orgs, the DEP, and the FFWCC, however you will not find them published anywhere. Why? Because these studies do not support the current program of breeding and expanding the manatee population to infinity.
Historic places like Crystal River, Three Sisters Springs in Tampa, the Orange River in Ft. Myers, Fakaunion Canal in Collier County, Indian River Lagoon and the Banana River in Brevard County – all out of seagrass. Coincidentally, these are areas that have high numbers of manatees.
Think about it, and be intellectually honest with yourself. We have a program that focuses exclusively on one species – the manatee. Its’ primary food source is seagrass. You know what else needs that seagrass to survive? Every other species in our eco-system! Turtles, shrimp, crabs, mollusks, flat-fishes, and virtually every single scaled fish in our offshore region begins life in a seagrass habitat. From bait stocks to apex predators, they grow up in our estuarine environments that are disappearing faster than they can regenerate.
Regulators are in “urgent” mode as they see what is happening, but are at a loss as to what to do. Boaters (remember the villains?) have been calling for decades to inject some common sense into the equation, and admit that the past forty year effort has been short-sighted at best. With no accurate historical manatee population number, no active population target, and boaters and fishermen ringing the alarm about our backwater vegetation, regulators are silent.
Politically, manatee “recovery” will likely never happen. This “endangered species” is responsible for the largest single growth-control initiative in Florida. Each animal is a living, breathing, moving building moratorium, and wherever they are, permits will be with-held at the federal level. This is why there is such a hue and cry about the proposed USFW recommendation to remove the animal from Endangered Species list. This creature is a silver bullet against development, and brings in millions of dollars per year to non-profit groups who have claimed “ownership” of the manatee.
Meanwhile, the manatee population is leap-frogging from one thermal pollution outfall to another – all around the Gulf coast to Texas, and up the eastern seaboard to Virginia. In those areas, they should be listed as an invasive species, as they are now eating up the aquatic vegetation that serves as the nurseries for the native fishes in those regions. And the environmental regulators should be decrying the thermal pollution in and of itself, for crying out loud!
Folks, it has to come to some form of a sensible discussion. We are losing our habitat. And all we seem to want to do is slow boats down, hold-up dock permits, artificially heat our estuaries, and breed more manatees. Is it a resource management issue, a growth management issue, or is it an animal rights issue? These are mutually exclusive, and for all of the funding dedicated to this single species and their self-proclaimed protectors over the past 40 years, there sure are a lot of glaring holes in their “best available science”.
Without those glaring holes being filled in, the future for our fish nurseries looks bleak. Manatees, however, will be everywhere!
Jim Kalvin is a Florida Native, a U.S.C.G Licensed 100 ton Master, and the Founder, President, and CEO of Standing Watch, Inc., which is Florida’s largest grass-roots boating advocacy group. Visit standingwatch.net, or call Jim at 239-821-4245 for public speaking availability.