A matter of manatees

This past weekend, we piled the kids and a picnic lunch into the car for a trip to Volusia County's Blue Springs State Park to see the manatees. Under a gray sky we stood on the docks and happily gawked at dozens of the lumbering underwater sea cows, who were escaping the relatively colder climes of the St. Johns River for the park's warmer waters. Cameras clicked as the children shouted and pointed at the slow-moving gray shapes of blubber.

My children love the manatees. They waited patiently for them to stick their noses above the water line every few minutes for a noisy inhalation. They watched with profound concern as the calves sought out their mother's mammaries. They understand that sea cows, like us, are mammals that breathe air, are warm-blooded, have fur or hair, bear their young live and nurse them with milk from their own bodies. They have posters of manatees in their rooms. They tell me that they would very much like to touch them, if they could. I imagine this would, in their minds, seal their bond of friendship forever.

It's a precarious time for Trichechus manatus latirostris, the subspecies of the West Indian manatee that populate our waters. No longer killed for their meat, oil and hides -- as was common in previous centuries -- they are still quite vulnerable to the encroachment of man and his "civilized" pursuits. In fact, over the past 10 years, approximately 30 percent of manatee deaths in our state have been directly attributable to human-related causes, including water-craft collisions, accidental crushing in structures like dams and locks, and entanglements in fishing gear. At Blue Springs, the adult manatees are identified by the scars left on their bodies by boat propellers.

And even though the latest statewide manatee census has shown a substantial improvement over previous years -- 3,276 were counted this month, compared to 2,222 a year ago -- the continued high level of human-related manatee deaths has raised concerns about the ability of the population to grow at an extended healthy rate. Rampant shoreline development, pollution of waterways and the state's growing human population all contribute as well to the loss of manatee habitat, threatening their survival.

Happily for the manatees, there is also a hardworking coalition of concerned humans fighting back on their behalf. Two weeks ago, 19 environmental, animal-welfare and public-interest groups, led by the Maitland-based Save the Manatee Club, reached a landmark settlement in its federal lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. The agreement might help pull the Florida manatee back from the brink.

The settlement commits the FWS to a "firm and rapid schedule for the designation of an extensive network of new manatee refuges and sanctuaries throughout Florida." (A manatee "sanctuary" is an area where "all waterborne activities are prohibited"; a manatee "refuge" is an area where some waterborne activities might be allowed, subject to restrictions.)

It also directs the federal government to ensure that all Corps-permitted projects, like the construction of docks, piers, marinas and boat slips, will have no more than a "negligible" cumulative effect on the species and its habitat. This will require stringent criteria before approving any new building that would increase boat traffic in manatee areas. In counties where the FWS has determined that manatees face a "high" or "medium" risk of being killed by boats, new projects could also be restricted, unless the affected areas have established adequate, strictly enforced speed zones.

Predictably, some of the lawsuit's industry "intervenors" -- groups that represent builders, developers, and boat-makers and owners -- point to this year's increased manatee count as reason to shy away from new protections. But this would be extremely shortsighted. It might be that this year's higher number was due more to good weather conditions for spotting than a true 50 percent increase. Regardless, no one can argue that approximately 3,200 manatees is a number far enough away from extinction to cause us to relax our vigilance.

The bottom line is this: Are we humans willing to forego some of our pleasures in order to protect a docile creature that has survived for millions of years before our way of life encroached upon its place on the planet? My kids think it's a worthwhile trade-off. Perhaps it's not as good as touching them. But it's a swim in the right