By Jaclyn Lopez
The news last week that yet another endangered Florida manatee was struck and killed by a boat created barely a ripple in the media cycle.
The reports read like just another police blotter item, verifying that the 10-year-old female manatee had died from “blunt force trauma” after being struck by a boat off Riviera Beach.
It marked at least the 53rd time this year one of the charismatic marine mammals has been killed by a watercraft.
The sad truth is that despite their protected status, manatees continue to be relentlessly assaulted by habitat destruction, cold-stress mortality and red tide events.
But watercraft strikes continue to be the leading cause of death for manatees, killing, on average, more than 80 a year — a fatality count that by itself represents more than seven times the number of manatees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates can be killed without impairing the species’ recovery.
Despite this disturbing trend, new research reveals that regulators not only have failed to keep track of how many permits they issue every year for the new docks, piers and boat ramps that increase watercraft access to Florida’s waterways, they have failed to determine the cumulative impacts of the thousands of projects they approve on manatees.
A Center for Biological Diversity study reveals that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued more than 4,000 permits for watercraft structures from 2008-13 without giving any consideration to the projects’ cumulative impacts on manatees. And possibly thousands more were granted by the state of Florida. Over the same period, more than 500 manatees died after being struck by watercraft and countless others sustained injuries.
The study details how the Fish and Wildlife Service and Army Corps have purposefully sidestepped analyzing the cumulative impacts of permitting these projects in favor of a streamlined permitting process designed to expedite the permits.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the Army Corps is required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure actions it permits, individually and cumulatively, do not result in harm to individual manatees or jeopardize them as a species.
To skirt this legal requirement, the Army Corps and Fish and Wildlife Service developed the Manatee Key, a streamlined process for quickly identifying those projects with serious affects to the manatee while letting all other projects proceed with minimal analysis.
Evaluated individually the impacts of these projects may appear to be minimal, but when considered together the true environmental impacts are clear — the projects result in the preventable deaths of manatees.
Use of the Manatee Key should be suspended until a full investigation can offer a true picture of impacts to manatees. And the evidence suggests there’s much to be learned.
The Center for Biological Diversity study reviewed records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. However, there’s strong indication the information provided by the corps likely represents only a portion of the permits issued for watercraft facilities.
For example, the National Marine Fisheries Service reported that during a similar time-frame, 2006-10, the corps authorized 9,195 permits just to construct docks, and from 2000-09, the state of Florida authorized 10,266 facilities allowing watercraft access.
The report makes evident that the federal and state regulators responsible for permitting new structures in Florida’s waterways have virtually no idea how those structures are impacting endangered manatees.
And especially in this year when officials are evaluating whether to downlist manatees from endangered to threatened, it’s imperative that regulators do everything in their power to ensure a true accounting of the growing threats to these treasured marine mammals.