Starving manatees feed on lettuce tossed out by Florida biologists. Photo via FWC
We may call ourselves “the Sunshine State,” but Halloween offers a reminder that Florida holds a lot of darkness, too.
You’d shriek with terror — er, I mean surprise! — at how many horror flicks have been filmed here. The list includes the campy ecological creepshow “Frogs,” the South-rises-again gorefest “Two Thousand Maniacs!” and, of course “Shock Waves,” by far the best “Nazi zombies arise from the depths of Biscayne Bay to chase Brooke Adams” movie ever made.
Now, get ready for a new entry in the catalogue. According to Sarasota-based Toxic Pictures, their movie “No Wake Zone” will feature a mutated manatee that wreaks havoc across Tampa Bay until a grizzled marine patrol veteran swings into action. No, I am not making that up.
Leaving aside for the moment the terrible title — a Tampa Bay Times columnist suggested a better one would be “A Portly Revenge” — I question exactly how a manatee could carry out a bloody rampage. Their flippers can’t grip a chainsaw or an ax. Their teeth are made for chewing seagrass, not jugular veins. Boats clobber them, not vice versa.
Still, I wonder if it’s the prospect of facing a horde of murderous sea cows that prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week to do something that indicates it maaaaaaaaaaaaaaay have made a mistake six years ago.
That’s when the agency took manatees down a notch on the endangered list, reclassifying them as merely “threatened.” Now, after nearly 2,000 have died over the past few years, the feds say they may put them back on the top of the list.
“It was ridiculous to even consider” classifying them as less than endangered, said Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, one of the organizations pushing for their return to the most protected status.
To restore them to their proper place, the law requires the feds to do a thorough job of reviewing the science — even though that’s clearly not what they did in 2017. Lots of scientists told them then that they were wrong and they did it anyway.
But this time I think they should be able to just throw up their hands and say, “Hey, we screwed up. Manatees are the very definition of an endangered species. We shouldn’t have ever tried to claim otherwise.”
Instead, we’ll have to wait until 2024 to see if they follow through on fixing this.
Whenever I think of the boneheaded decision they made in 2017, it reminds me of my favorite line from the TV series “Schitt’s Creek.” Catherine O’Hara’s character, former soap opera star Moira Rose (no relation to Patrick), sternly tells her wayward son, “What you did was impulsive, capricious and melodramatic — but it was also wrong.”
Santa vs. the Grinch
Manatees have been on the endangered list longer than there’s been an Endangered Species Act. They were an entry on the original list issued in 1967, six years prior to the passage of the act in 1973.
They weren’t put on the list because of their numbers. Nobody knew for sure how many manatees swam in Florida’s waterways.
Instead, they wound up on the list of species in need of special protection because of the threats they faced, threats more real than any horde of underwater Nazi zombies: Being hit by boats, water pollution fouling their habitat, waterfront development eating away at their places to breed and feed.
By the 2000s, though, two economic forces were pushing to take manatees off the list entirely: The boating industry and waterfront developers.
Both had faced new restrictions on their activities as a result of a 2001 lawsuit settlement between environmental groups and the state and federal wildlife agencies. Leaders of the two groups reasoned that taking manatees off the endangered list would mean those restrictions would go away.
But people looooooooooove these ugly-cute critters. They’re popular with both tourists and residents. They’re our official state marine mammal. They have been mascots for everything from elementary schools to a minor league ball club.
Manatees are even an economic driver for communities such as Crystal River, where more than 60 companies offer swim-with-the-manatees tours. If you stop by City Hall, you’ll see a manatee sculpture outside. At Christmas, they put a Santa hat on it.
Then along came a Grinch. It was an organization called Save Crystal River, mostly made up of waterfront property owners. In the beginning, Save Crystal River “wasn’t anything to do with saving Crystal River,” Rose of the Save the Manatee Club said. “It was everything to do with Tea Party, anti-government rhetoric.”
The group wasn’t happy about the pro-manatee regulations on boats and dock construction that had boosted the manatee population to about 6,000 statewide.
They teamed up with an anti-government law firm, the Pacific Legal Foundation, to sue the feds. They demanded a change in the manatees’ status, citing the increased population.
Yes, that’s right, they used the population increase caused by the regulations to argue that the regulations were no longer needed.
Usually, the only way for a species to leave the endangered list is if the dire threats that landed them on the list have been quashed. That had clearly not happened for manatees. Boaters had killed a record number of manatees the year before, topping 100 for the first time.
As for the manatees’ habitat, some environmental groups expressed concerns about the decline in water quality all over the state. Pollution poured into waterways and fueled harmful algae blooms that killed seagrass. Talk about your toxic pictures!
“We warned them about seagrass losses,” said Ragan Whitlock of the Center for Biological Diversity, “but that was just not considered.”
The problem was that in 2017, the occupant of the White House was a Palm Beach club owner who hates the Endangered Species Act.
As a result, federal wildlife officials put on a WIG.
Manatees WIG’d out
Not a literal hairpiece, mind you. We’re not talking about a Bride of Frankenstein bouffant.
No, it’s an acronym. The southeastern regional wildlife service office in Atlanta had decreed that, while Donald “Combovers Are Cool” Trump was president, they were going to achieve what a memo from regional director Leo Miranda-Castro called “Wildly Important Goals,” or WIGs for short.
“Our goal for FY17 was to conserve 30 species by delisting, downlisting, or precluding the need to list them,” Miranda-Castro wrote, giving “conserve” a definition more elastic than the world’s biggest rubber band.
What he was saying, in other words, was, “The heck with science, let’s check a bunch of species off the list like items you’ve been sent to buy at the grocery store.”
Manatees wound up as one of the first species to be WIG’d out.
Instead of basing the decision on the elimination of threats, they based it on a computer model that — like the elaborately coiffed TV psychic Walter Mercado — attempted to peer into the future.
The model said everything was peachy and the manatee population would double to 12,000 over the next 50 years. And that was sufficient to convince the feds to sound the trumpets and declare that victory was at hand.
The day after celebrating “Manatee Appreciation Day” on its social media accounts, the feds called a press conference to announce that manatees could no longer be classified as endangered because of what the model said would happen.
“While it is not out of the woods, we believe the manatee is no longer on the brink of extinction,” Larry Williams of the agency’s South Florida office said during the news conference that day in March 2017.
The feds promised that no one would even notice the change. They promised that manatees would still get the same level of protection they had enjoyed before.
None of that, according to Rose, turned out to be true.
Time for a rampage
As I mentioned, the outside scientists who reviewed the change called it a bad idea. One said that the agency’s proposal “seems to be based on hope” instead of science. Meanwhile, nearly 87,000 comments and petition signatures said, “Don’t do it!”
But nothing could top that nasty old WIG.
The feds pushed ahead with reclassifying the manatees. What followed, according to Rose, was a loss of personnel and resources assigned to manatee protection.
From a height of 10, he said, the people reviewing federal permits and protection plans dropped to two. (Later, a wildlife service official denied that, saying it’s three.)
“It’s all about the priorities that you set,” Rose told me.
So much for that population gain that was supposed to justify ending their status as an endangered species.
Turns out the pollution-fueled algae blooms that started wiping out thousands of acres of the seagrass beds in 2011 had taken a toll on the manatees. Manatees, as I mentioned, eat seagrass. Feel free to shriek in surprise.
The worst losses were in the 156-mile Indian River Lagoon on the state’s East Coast, which, Whitlock said, “is in an ecological collapse.”
The lagoon is where hundreds of manatees often gather in the winter to seek shelter from the deadly cold. Now, because of the consequences of human pollution fouling their habitat, they had nothing to eat.
So, in winter, they’d starve to death. Malnourished manatee carcasses began floating up in waterways. They weren’t “portly” anymore. They were kind of shriveled. The birth rate appeared to decline, too.
Had the feds’ computer model accounted for this? It had not. The model had been based on a series of assumptions. One of them was: “The phenomenon in the [Indian River Lagoon] is a short-lived event that will not persist as a chronic source of mortality.”
If ever there was a time for a mutated manatee to go on a rampage against us humans, that was it. But not one did. They probably lacked the energy needed to be ”hangry.”
Desperate, Florida officials tried putting out lettuce for the manatees to eat in a secluded spot near Cape Canaveral. It was not something anyone had ever attempted before, but the situation in 2021 was so dire they believed it was necessary.
Slowly the hungry manatees adapted to the offered food, because if there’s one thing manatees are good at, it’s adapting. Last winter, the state biologists put out more lettuce, and manatees again showed up to nibble on this improvised salad bar.
There’s now a lawsuit filed by the Save the Manatee Club and other environmental organizations pending against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over Florida’s lousy water quality.
Meanwhile, the Save the Manatee Club joined forces with other environmental organizations to file an official petition that manatees be put back atop the endangered list.
Their petition cited “new information” that the agency hadn’t had in 2017 — namely, that manatees were dying at an unprecedented rate because we humans had eliminated so much of their food.
I contacted the Pacific Legal Foundation to see what they thought about this, but I didn’t get a response. Apparently, they were too busy battling some other do-gooder regulations like making sure kids have clean water to drink.
I tried the folks at Save Crystal River, which Rose told me is now a more environmentally focused organization. They sent me a rather bland response that said the feds “should use the best science and data available and follow the law in determining the status of any species.”
The WIG man, Miranda-Castro, has retired from the wildlife service to work for a private organization called (don’t shriek with laughter!) the Conservation Without Conflict Coalition. Oh, if only he’d tried to avoid conflict in Florida instead of stirring it up.
But Williams is still where he was, so I sought comments from him.
No, he said, this latest decision about manatees isn’t an admission that the 2017 move was a mistake.
“The information we had [then] about seagrass loss was pretty minor,” he said. “The losses we’ve seen since then had not started in 2017.”
No, he said, his boss’ devotion to WIGs didn’t drive the 2017 decision on manatees.
“It didn’t play a part at all,” he insisted.
And no, he said, laughing, the fear of being attacked by a bunch of teenage mutant manatees seeking revenge didn’t motivate the reconsideration.
Lettuce hope the feds aren’t scared yet only because the manatees are sneaking up on them like that horde of Nazi zombies. The feds are notoriously bad at spotting the danger lurking in the water.
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