Manatee Harassment Case Reinforces Need for Hands-Off Policy
By Patrick Rose, Aquatic Biologist and Executive Director, Save the Manatee Club
Date: January 15, 2021
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began an investigation this week into an incident of illegal manatee harassment on the Homosassa River, in which perpetrators scratched the word “Trump” into the algae on a manatee’s back. The politically-charged message caught the attention of the nation. Save the Manatee Club believes the case also reinforces the need for stricter regulation and increased education regarding the dangers manatees face from harassment and close human interaction.
Legally, “harassment” includes any act that potentially injures, annoys, or disturbs the manatee, or causes a disruption of its natural behavior – such as handling it long enough to scrape five large letters into its back. The offender(s) in this case clearly prevented the manatee from escaping while they did their work. Even worse, the manatee may have been in a sick or stressed state – too weak or unable to get away.
Touching or petting a manatee in the water or aboard a boat can cause the animal to become habituated to approaching people or watercraft. Throughout Florida, guides, tourists, and the general public have been told, however, that it’s okay to touch manatees, as long as it’s “passive,” or with one hand only, or the manatee approaches you first. Unfortunately, this ill-informed approach to passive observation can lead the average swimmer, diver, paddler, or boater to believe that all manatees are fair game to touch.
Save the Manatee Club is calling for a change in the regulations and public education on interacting with manatees to a true “hands-off,” 100% passive observation as recommended by the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission. Prohibited actions must expand beyond chasing, riding, or poking and include touching and petting. These rules are already in place for whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals, but not yet for imperiled manatees who face many other threats, from watercraft collisions to the loss of vital habitat.
While some manatees are conditioned to human interaction, the vast majority of manatees tend to seek food, rest, and warmth away from people. Disturbance can drive manatees away from warm-water sanctuaries, often with lethal consequences. These areas must be expanded to protect wintering manatees from cold temperatures and harassment.
The public outrage following this incident has shown that people care about the well-being of manatees and support a hands-off policy. Some caring tour operators have voluntarily chosen to adopt this hands-off passive stance and are still successful in offering quality experiences observing manatees. But there are still far too many harmful harassment encounters occurring each and every day.
It is time to follow the lead of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission and stop allowing this harassment to continue unabated. Save the Manatee Club has aggressively and consistently advocated for stricter policies and increased sanctuaries, but this disgusting letter-scraping incident further confirms that more protections are needed. All human-initiated contact with imperiled manatees needs to stop.
Anyone with knowledge of the incident is encouraged to call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922). This hotline can also be used to report manatee harassment or to report injured, sick, orphaned, entangled, or dead manatees.