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Fury Over a Gentle Giant

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

Biologists conducting later aerial population surveys took pains to do them in the winter, when manatees congregating near warm water sources would presumably be easier to count. Beginning in 1991, the surveyors consistently found between 1,500 to 2,500 manatees. The researchers cautioned that the number fluctuated according to counting conditions, not because the actual manatee population varied so dramatically. Environmentalists cited the figures as a sort of final word on the manatee population and characterized even the higher numbers as evidence of a crisis—a view that found its way to Tallahassee, the state capital. “There’s an endangered species that’s close to being extinct in Florida waters, and I don’t want to be part of that,’’ Gov. Jeb Bush announced in 2000. “It’s my favorite mammal.’’

 

Then, in January 2001, a new survey sparked another round of controversy. Led by the state Marine Research Institute, it came up with 3,276 manatees—far more than anyone had dared to believe existed. Bruce Ackerman, a research scientist who coordinates the ongoing study, says optimal survey conditions, including prolonged cold temperatures and clear skies, contributed to the higher population count. Now boaters and anglers turned the tables on manatee-protection groups, contending that the population had gone up, not down. Also, they argued, the documented increase in manatee deaths, rather than evidence of an alarming trend, merely reflected the greater number of animals. Boating restrictions should be relaxed, some said. Jim Kalvin, a Naples-based dock-builder and the founder of a boating advocacy group, Standing Watch, says overzealous manatee-protection measures hinder personal freedoms and represent the “flagrant abuse of the endangered species laws.’’

 

Ackerman agrees that the total manatee population has likely increased in the past 30 years, which he attributes to efforts to improve water quality and protect the animals from speeding boats. But that doesn’t mean the manatee has a healthy future, he cautions, because the number dying from all causes statewide, including boat collisions, has risen so high that it is thought to equal the number of births. “You’re taking away [the population’s] ability to grow,” Ackerman adds.

 

An April 2003 federal analysis of manatee population trends paints an even gloomier picture. It concluded that 3 to 13 manatees killed annually by human activity would have a negligible impact on the state’s manatee population. But more deaths than that, the researchers said, could have a dire effect in the long run.

 

the state’s most successful manatee-advocacy group grew out of an unlikely alliance between then-governor Bob Graham and tropical troubadour Jimmy Buffett. When the two met backstage at a Buffett concert in 1981, the entertainer expressed a desire to do something for the manatees he saw swimming by his sailboat. (He had even written a song, “Growing Older But Not Up,’’ comparing himself to an old prop-scarred manatee.) Thus was born the Save the Manatee Club, which today has 40,000 members and a $1.3 million annual budget.

 

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