Environmental group in Florida seeks to prevent people from swimming with manatees in a bid to minimize harassment of these mammals.
The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has filed a Notice of Intent to Sue the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to end the popular swim-with programs by disallowing people to swim within 10 feet of the manatees. In addition, it recommends the expansion of no-human access areas and to designate the entire Kings Bay, Three Sisters Springs and Homosassa Springs as critical manatee habitats.
These proposals do not sit well with some people.
"This is worldwide tourism and this small organization is making an effort to pull us all out of this beautiful body of water that we've been playing in for quite some time that is way too much to take away," said Diane Oestreich, owner and operator of Bird's Underwater Dive Center in Crystal River. She predicts that she would need to lay off about 75% of her staff, as a result of the proposal.
"It's just really awful," said Lars Andersen, a plaintiff with PEER and owner of Adventure Outpost in High Springs. Nevertheless, his company stopped allowing tourists to swim with manatees 16 years ago. "I've chosen on my own to sacrifice some income by not letting my people swim with manatees and it has cost the business, but I just think that it was the right thing to do," he said.
Although human interaction with manatees appears harmless, it does have some repercussions. There may be a higher chance of manatees colliding with boats, and the boat propellers. And more people in the warm waters leads to higher congestion within the narrow swimming channels used by manatees.
To avoid commotion and harassment, other manatees that would have entered these warmer waters keep away and remain in the colder gulf waters. This may be deadly for them, as water temperatures below 68 degrees may kill them.
Perhaps what is needed is to find the right balance, as the swim-with programs do have some educational value in promoting conservation and environmental awareness. Robert Bonde, a research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, cites the example of a grad student who is specializes in manatees because his parents had taken him on a swim-with program in 1981.