Last updated: 04:00 PM ET, Thu March 19 2015

Is Tourism Endangering Florida's Manatees?

Destination & Tourism | Patrick Clarke | March 19, 2015

Is Tourism Endangering Florida's Manatees?

Florida manatees have been in the news a lot recently as a result of abnormally low temperatures in the Southeast U.S. this winter leading to rescue operations.

But the latest buzz surrounding the marine mammals centers on the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is concerned that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is allowing too much human interaction at the expense of the animals. 

The group has filed an Intent to Sue notice against the FWS accusing the agency of "violating the Endangered Species Act in its treatment of the endangered Florida manatee."

The 60-day notice, which was issued on March 9, alleges that the FWS is "actively facilitating significant physical harassment of manatees through issuing Special Use Permits to commercial dive shops for 'swim with' programs within the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge."

"'Swim with' programs significantly impair these endangered animals' essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding, and sheltering," said PEER Counsel Laura Dumais via the Washington Post. "Some people have a hard time understanding this connection, because they don’t see manatees keeling over before their eyes; they might think that the manatees don’t seem to mind."

PEER also alleges that the FWS "violated the law by failing to designate Kings Bay, Three Sister Springs and Homosassa Springs as critical habitat for the Florida manatee" and "by failing to provide sufficient sanctuary and refuge protection areas as mandated."

According to William Patrick of, in 2007, Fish and Wildlife biologists recommended that manatees be "down listed" in terms of being an endangered species. The Florida manatee population was estimated to be 3,300 around that time.

However, the state's manatee population exceeded a record 6,000 this month, according to a survey. 

And while PEER claims the developed tourism industry surrounding manatees is harmful to the animals, those who see them on a daily basis disagree. 

"The manatee is actually a success story. Their numbers are going up, the population is going up," said Three Sisters Springs Refuge Manager Andrew Gude. "Tourism has also gone through the roof. You can rent a car and for $40 you can swim with a mammal that will never rip you apart. The reason the service has been so supportive is that when people see the manatees and get in the water with them, in a lot of ways it changes their lives and they’re a lot more conservation-minded."

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