Two of the strongest environmental laws in the world are the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Among many other statutes, these laws make it a Federal crime for anyone to harass endangered marine mammal species such as the West Indian manatee. By the accepted definitions of the word “harass”, this means that people cannot swim with and certainly cannot touch a manatee. However, at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, visitors can do both of these things- and it’s totally legal!
A select few dive operators have special permission and training from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. This allows them to take visitors into Crystal River NWR to swim with (and in some circumstances even touch) manatees.
This policy is controversial. Though divemasters are trained to pull tourists out of the water if the manatee appears bothered, the ESA and the MMPA made swimming with and touching these animals illegal for a reason. It may result in altered behavior, perhaps teaching them to associate engine noise with a boatload of backscratchers instead of a mortal threat. It may stress the animals, making them more vulnerable to other threats. It may encourage tourists to engage in similar behavior without a trained guide.
On the other hand, supporters claim that allowing a community to benefit economically from a local endangered species may encourage local conservation efforts. Lots of tourists come to Crystal River to swim with manatees, and they bring lots of money into an extremely poor part of rural Florida. On a recent trip, my divemaster told me that locals used to see manatees as annoyance, referring to them as “speed bumps that only Yankees care about”. Now that the manatees bring in tourism dollars, attitudes are starting to change.
Both sides raise excellent points, which makes the manatees of Crystal River an excellent subject for our first ethical debate of the fall.
Is it a good idea to let a local community profit from an endangered species?
Should we be taking a chance with such a critically endangered species (fewer than 5,000 remain in the wild)?
Should the ESA and the MMPA always be followed to the letter, or should we make exceptions for worthy causes?