Fury Over a Gentle Giant | Science | Smithsonian

Fury Over a Gentle Giant

Floridians raise a ruckus over manatees as biologists weigh prospects for the endangered species' survival

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As a chill wind rippled across the CaloosahatcheeRiver and into downtown Fort Myers, Florida, in December 2002, some 3,000 people surged through the doors of the riverfront convention center. Many waved signs. “Don’t Tread On Me!’’ “Don’t Give Up the Ship!’’ “Save Our Jobs!’’ One man, dressed in red, white and blue, bore a large white cross labeled “Property Rights.’’ There were skinny teenagers and white-haired retirees, scruffy sailors in tattered jeans, businessmen in sharply creased khakis, a woman in black leather pants and stiletto heels. What most of them had in common was anger at a proposed federal restriction on waterfront development that they felt would undermine their livelihoods and lifestyles for the sake of the manatee, a chubby, shy marine mammal known to old-timers as a sea cow. As one protester’s T-shirt put it, “Stop the Manatee Insanity!”

 

For years, Florida has been beset by a bitter, frequently convoluted conflict over the gentle creature that inhabits many of its bays, canals and rivers. The dispute concerns new regulations, intended to ensure the species’ survival, that further limit not only development but also boaters’ access to certain waters inhabited by manatees; boat collisions are the leading cause of manatee death. Although the manatee has been designated as an endangered species since the first list was drawn up in 1967, biologists don’t know how many of the animals remain in Florida waters, and both sides have seized on that uncertainty to advance their cause. Manatee advocates say the creatures are barely holding their own and may be in peril, while many boaters, anglers and developers argue that the population has recently rebounded and is not in fact endangered. The clash, the New York Times reported in February 2002, is “one of the fiercest fights over an endangered species” since loggers and environmentalists squared off over the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest a decade ago.

 

The Fort Myers hearing, which delved into the rather arcane matter of how many manatees can be accidentally killed by human activity without threatening the population as a whole, represented something of a climax in the drama. Held next to the river that, in the past ten years, has seen more manatee deaths by boats than any other in the state, it featured, among others, state legislator Lindsay Harrington, a folksy real estate broker who once compared environmentalists to watermelons—green on the outside and red on the inside. “Many of us believe this goes too damn far!’’ Harrington said. The crowd cheered. Aleading proponent of manatee protections, Laura Combs, Southwest Florida regional coordinator of the Save the Manatee Club, was booed when she got up to speak in favor of restriction. After the meeting, some attendees shouted at Combs that she was ruining their lives. “I was pretty flummoxed,’’ she recalled.

 

The manatee might seem an unlikely cause célèbre. It has a body like a dumpling, a paddlelike tail and a squint like Mr. Magoo’s. An average adult is about ten feet long and weighs 1,000 pounds. The animals tend to be solitary, except when mating or when cold weather prompts them to huddle near warm springs or power plant discharge pipes. Like seals and walruses, manatees breathe through their snouts. They surface to take a breath about every three or four minutes.

 

Manatees eat mostly aquatic vegetation—the sight of the corpulent beasts grazing led to their bovine nickname—and have been observed hauling themselves out of the water to nibble on lawns. Everything manatees do, they do slowly. They usually swim no faster than five miles per hour, though they can sprint nearly three times as fast. A mature female generally produces one calf every two to five years after a 12- to 13-month gestation. Curiously, scientists say they don’t know how long manatees typically live in the wild. But a captive animal at the Parker Manatee Aquarium in Bradenton, Florida, celebrated its 55th birthday last year.

 

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