Manatees Win Long Overdue Protection Through Legal System

The docile, herbivore commonly referred to as the "sea-cow" may finally receive some of the protection it has desperately needed and been promised for decades. Recently, two important lawsuits aimed at forcing state and federal agencies to implement long-standing laws protecting the Florida West Indian manatee, have nearly reached final settlement.

The settlement of the federal suit brought against the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and US Corps of Engineers (Corps) was announced at a press conference on January 4 at the National Press Club in Washington DC, hosted by Save the Manatee Club (SMC), lead organization for the coalition of 19 animal protection and environmental groups, including AWI, that brought the suit. Later that month, the tentative state suit settlement with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was announced in Florida.

The federal settlement, as presented by lead attorney Eric Glitzenstein of the law-firm Meyer & Glitzenstein, "requires the USFWS to establish 'new manatee refuges and sanctuaries throughout peninsular Florida' and to issue comprehensive regulations (already required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act) for ensuring that projects permitted by the Corps—which includes all new docks, piers, boat slips, and similar structures in manatee habitat—have no more than a 'negligible' effect on manatees." Glitzenstein goes on to say that the settlement also "requires the USFWS and Corps to analyze, in an Environmental Impact Statement, or an Environmental Assessment (as required by the National Environmental Policy Act) the 'direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts on manatees and their habitat' of all Corps-permitted projects in manatee habitat."

The attorney for the State suit against the FWC, David Guest of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund said, "this settlement will take the necessary steps to rebuild the Florida manatee population. It is a strictly science-based settlement, which will establish shoreline buffer speed zones, and 14 safe havens that will reverse the alarming increase in manatee deaths and injuries. The speed zones will add on average less than ten minutes travel time for a typical boater. It's a small price to pay." While the State has agreed to the terms of the settlement they will not finalize the agreement until numerous public hearings are held throughout the State. For more details about both settlement agreements please visit AWI's website at http://www.awionline.org/www.awionline.org or write us.

Scientists from the Florida Marine Research Institute have estimated that 3,276 manatees live in Florida waters. With the manatees' slow reproductive cycle they cannot sustain the high mortality rate, which has been on the rise every year. Something had to be done and the lawsuit along with the state and national attention to the issue have done a great deal to draw critically needed attention to this situation. Pat Rose of SMC was right when he said "now is the time to act when boaters and environmentalists can work together to save the manatee; this may be the last chance."

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