Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Who cares about a bunch of manatees anyway?

Phoenix, a rescued West Indian manatee, swims with her front flippers during a field trip presentation called "The Endangered Manatee Expedition" at the education department in the Miami Seaquarium in Keybiscayne, Fla., April 24, 2013. Phoenix lost 75 percent of her tail from a boating accident and is paralyzed in her lower half.
Phoenix, a rescued West Indian manatee, swims with her front flippers during a field trip presentation called "The Endangered Manatee Expedition" at the education department in the Miami Seaquarium in Keybiscayne, Fla., April 24, 2013. Phoenix lost 75 percent of her tail from a boating accident and is paralyzed in her lower half. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

Just imagine the fun, if Florida could only get those pesky manatees off the endangered species list.

Bust out the go-fast boats. Grab yourself a speargun. Invest in extra-large barbecue pits. Get those jackbooted federal regulators and hippie environmentalists off your back.

Outfits like the Marine Industries Association of South Florida and the Pacific Legal Foundation have been agitating to reclassify the creature officially known as the West Indian manatee, which has been on the federal endangered list as long as there has been an endangered species list.

Boaters hate the speeding prohibitions that require them to putt-putt through manatee zones like Bogey at the helm of the African Queen.

The Pacific Legal Foundation just flat opposes government regulations that limit private property rights, especially those damn environmental regs.

In the last few years, the PLF has attacked federal protections conferred on the woodland caribou, dusky gopher, Florida’s wood stork, California sea otter, burrowing frog, delta smelt, the coast gnatcatcher (a bird), Utah prairie dog (not a dog), the Puget Sound killer whale, the elderberry longhorn beetle, the Inyo California towhee (another bird), the kangaroo rat and the Kuenzler hedgehog cactus (definitely not a hedgehog.)

Naturally, an outfit that doesn’t mind taking on creatures as beloved as caribou, prairie dogs, sea otters and orcas wouldn’t be overly worried about the public’s regard for sea cows, gentle creatures that are considerably more popular among Floridians than most mammals of the human kind, particularly those of the political class.

PLF represents a group called Save Crystal River, a name that evokes notions of environmental activism. Well, not in the way you might imagine. The group agitates on behalf of local boaters and waterfront property owners irritated by rules that slow down watercraft and limit development that might destroy sea grass beds. (Sea grass is about as crucial to the manatee as the cafecito is to a Miamian.) Signs around the town of Crystal River, 65 miles north of Tampa, demand, “Get U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Off Our Back.” It’s a kind of watery variation of our great national feud: personal freedom versus government regulation, private property rights versus the commonweal, perpetually angry Tea Partiers versus sweet-nature manatees.

Last summer, the PLF’s lawyers pushed the Fish and Wildlife Service into launching a yearlong review of the manatee’s endangered status. They figured their cause was bolstered by last month’s manatee census. Biologists counted 3,333 manatees on Florida’s east coast (including 389 in Miami-Dade County waters and 665 in Broward) and another 2,730 along the Florida Gulf coast. That came to 6,063 — a record since the state began the annual count back in 1991.

Marine biologists, however, cautioned that they aren’t sure this represents an increase in the manatee population or if the teams making these aerial surveys are just getting better at spotting sea cows.

But the number’s good enough for the boaters and property rights crusaders who want the manatees knocked down to just plain old threatened, as opposed to endangered. Besides, the National Marine Association has been plotting to have manatees reclassified for years. The Save The Manatee Club’s website displays a 1999 memo from an industry lobbyist that suggests, “Perhaps the time has come to delist the manatee, much as the alligator and the eagle have been delisted. The marine manufacturers and dealers believe that they have been on the defense far too long, and therefore they are planning to create a proactive program on manatee issues. Their fear is that the thrust of all the manatee protection activities are designed to limit the number of docks and marines and limit the number of boats that are on the water.”

If the anti-regulation crowd prevails, it’s a little unclear what the immediate effect of a new classification might bring. The endangered status sure hasn’t done much to discourage a “swim with the manatees” tourist industry from taking hold in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.

The Tampa Bay Times reported March 10 that Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility was sending its own lawyers after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of manatees for abiding commercial operations whose customers pet, stroke, swim and generally wallow around with the famously mellow creatures. An infamous video posted on YouTube showed a tour operator intercepting a baby manatee swimming with its mother and holding it aloft so his customers could snap photographs. Other videos show mob scenes of snorkelers amid the manatees.

Last year, about 265,000 people came to swim, snorkel, scuba and paddle kayaks among the 500 or so manatees that congregate in the Crystal River. That’s 530 oglers for every manatee. Of course, cracking down on the $20 million-a-year pet-a-manatee tourism is exactly the kind of government intervention that gets the Pacific Legal Foundation and other libertarians riled and ready to storm into court.

However, groups anxious for the feds to down-list the manatee are up against some sobering mortality numbers. About 2,500 manatees were reported killed in Florida over the past four years, including 830 in 2013, 371 last year and 88 so far this year.

But still, with 6,000 or so manatees swimming around, there’s a chance that the feds will indeed pronounce them merely threatened. That’s the same status that was conferred on the Florida black bear — with only 3,000 left in the state.

That seemed plenty enough for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which last month (not long after legalizing silencers for hunting weapons) voted to reinstate bear hunting.

If the FWC figures that it’s okay to hunt a beloved species with a population of 3,000, imagine what kind of sportin’ activities those good ol’ boys in Tallahassee can rationalize now that we’ve got twice that many manatees terrorizing Florida’s waterways. Imagine the fun.

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