Ethical debate: Can an endangered species be a business partner?

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 manatee at Homasassa Springs Wildlife Park, Florida. Photo credit: David Shiffman

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?



  1. Southern Fried Scientist · October 19, 2010

    Actually, the MMPA applies to all marine mammals regardless of their conservation status.

    • WhySharksMatter · October 19, 2010

      Absolutely correct. I knew that but phrased it confusingly above- sorry about that. All marine mammal species are protected by the MMPA. All endangered species are protected by the ESA. This post deals with a marine mammal species that happens to be endangered.

  2. Mike Lisieski · October 19, 2010

    How important is local conservation (ie. protection within a small area), if it’s at the expense of conservation within the species historical range?

    If the animals in question are very mobile (and I don’t know if manatees are), some of them might grow accustomed to human interaction in one area, and then move to an area where human interaction with them is not as well controlled and be put at risk by their new tolerance of humans. If, in fact, interacting with humans in these controlled situations changes manatee behavior (so that they are less apt to avoid humans in the future) and changes human behavior (so that they are more likely to approach manatees outside of the few designated situations,) then it is easy to see how it could hurt the species. If both of these effects occur, it could make re-expansion of the species to the rest of its range much more difficult.

    The goal of conservation of depleted species is not only to protect the animals that exist, but to try to allow them to recover to their historical ranges and numbers. While structured human-manatee interactions may not hurt animals who live their lives wholly within such controlled and protected areas, it may cripple their ability to re-expand their range and our ability to respect (eg. resist interfering with) that range.

    I guess my answer would depend on a number of variables (which I don’t know enough to pin down) – how far individual animals roam, how large their historical range was, how much human interaction affects their behavior, the specific economic effects of tourism dollars on those areas, etc.

    • WhySharksMatter · October 19, 2010

      I see what you’re saying, Mike. Yes, efforts like this might make re-expansion to the historical range more difficult.

      However, some argue that if we don’t give locals a stake in conservation, the animals are more likely to go extinct, which would make re-expansion impossible.

  3. Jake Etzkorn · October 19, 2010

    This is always a tricky debate around endangered species. The law exists for a reason, and for a law to have real teeth it not only has to be enforced, but exceptions to it must be minimized (exceptions to a law – not a very palatable notion to a scientific mind). Otherwise, as you pointed out, people will see the guided tours as an excuse to swim with manatees on their own.

    Enforcement of the law requires one of two things: either effective monitoring and reporting systems imposed by government and/or conservation groups, or investment by the local community. Having a financial incentive, like tourism is probably the most effective way of getting the locals on board with the notion of conservation. On northern Vancouver Island there have been great efforts made by the local whale watching companies to protect the northern resident killer whales and their habitat, because of the financial benefit they provide (and for their inherent value as well). Of course there are still abuses of the system by some operators, private vessels, and fishermen, so monitoring is still necessary.

    Protection of the species must come first, and the regulations must be based on conservation science. Especially with marine mammals, who are under a lot of environmental pressure, we should err on the side of caution. But having done that, locals should be given every opportunity to benefit for these species, as their attitudes towards them will be much more positive than if they are shut out completely.

  4. Southern Fried Scientist · October 19, 2010

    At some point we have to abandon the ideal scenario of allowing species to recover to undisturbed distribution and not interfering with their behavior. It’s almost contrary to conservation principles to take a species that’s habitat has been reduced to marginal territories by human development and population has been depleted by human activity and declare, ok, now we won’t interfere with them.

    Manatee populations can’t recover to their previous numbers because the habitat to support those numbers no longer exists and human/manatee interactions are an inevitability for the foreseeable future. Humans are a major influence in all regions that once held manatees. If we’re really serious about protecting manatees and bringing populations back to self-sustaining numbers, than human interaction has to be part of manatee ecology.

  5. Candid Engineer · October 19, 2010

    I’d be interested in knowing what percentage of the total manatee population is exposed to human interaction through the activities at Crystal River. Anything higher than a small percentage would make me uncomfortable that human interaction may result in global, potentially irreversible, changes in the species. A small % though? Could be a win-win.

    • WhySharksMatter · October 19, 2010

      I don’t know the exact percentage, but our guide told us that lots of manatees come to the NWR in the winter because of the relatively warm springs.

  6. natalie kerr · October 20, 2010

    in my mind we need to leave all wildlife alone to get on with what they do best , being wild .. i know im naive but its how i feel ….

    • Southern Fried Scientist · October 24, 2010

      But of course, they haven’t been left alone. It’s a little strange to destroy their habitat, reduce their populations to near extinction, co-opt their waterways, and poison their food supply, then say “ok, now we’ll leave the alone.”

  7. Michelle · November 9, 2010

    My theory is that the well educated and certified tour partners have a very important role in educating the public on the manatee. The manatee habitat is not going to expand, and the boats will not be leaving the waterways, so the more that people get from meaningful and educational interactions with this wonderful creature, the more they will respect it, understand it, and love it. The more that they love the manatee, the more likely they will remember that they are using the manatee’s home when they are operating boats, and to do so with respect for thier habitat.
    If people don’t have a meaningful interaction with a manatee, the information that they may have learned with out the interaction will not affect thier heart the same way as it would if they swam with one, watched one care for it’s calf, or counted the prop scars on their backs.
    People should be allowed this interaction under the supervision of a trained and certified tour partner.

  8. JMF10 · November 17, 2010

    It seems as if everything these days can be boiled down to economics; I believe it is the answer to 99 out of 100 questions. Even laws, including environmental laws in this case, can be bent when money can be made. Is the manatee absolutely positively the only way that that the area can make money? I understand that those swimming with the manatees are under the supervision of trained and certified guide and I mean no disrespect to them. However, a number as low as 5,000 shouldn’t be played with, no pun intended. And are there any stats that support that this does in fact raise conservation efforts? I’m all for entertainment but more in favor of preserving the species and I think it will be easier to get over not being able to swim with manatees than to lose the species completely.

    • Gracie Herlong · November 29, 2010

      Yes, it seems everything is about economics in this country. I agree that there should be clear evidence that swimming with manatees does raise conservation efforts.

  9. Pumpkin · November 28, 2010

    No, we should not continue to let endangered species become more endangered just because the state is making a profit. There are other ways of doing it. I went to Crystal River and I don’t remember people touching the manatees at all but I’m sure people do which is probably harmful to them in some way. Since there are fewer than 5,000 manatees in the world we should not be taking chances and should take all the necessary precautions. There should be no exceptions either, because it is simply unfair.

  10. Gracie Herlong · November 29, 2010

    Do we know for sure if having humans swim with the manatees is really affecting their overall well-being? How do we know that the manatees do not enjoy the attention? If people want to risk swimming with the manatees without a trained guide, I feel that they should be able to do that. As long as people are instructed on the proper ways to observe and swim with manatees, I think it should be okay in certain areas of Florida. I think that giving people a chance to really experience the animals will draw their attention and financial efforts towards the species, and the state of Florida as a whole.

    • ews · April 2, 2011

      I agree with you partially here. I feel having the public involved will help to make them more aware and possibly sympathize with the depleting manatee population in the area. Allowing people to swim with manatees without a trained professional may not be the best idea. Especially out in the wild. Although, an example to support your claim could possibly be the attraction many have to dolphins in the wild. They are certainly beautiful creatures and many people, having seen them or encountered them in the wild, have grown to respect them more. Thus, many have become more active in protecting dolphins in their natural habitat. This could be a great model for the manatees.

  11. anvbio102 · November 29, 2010

    This ethical debate boils down the whether or not the pros outweigh the cons. I don’t feel that they do. The laws protecting the manatee from ‘harassment’ are set into place for a reason and should apply to everyone. I have a hard time believing that the success of the local economy depends on tourists being able to swim with manatees. I would instead chose to educate the visitors of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge on ways in which they can protect endangered species such as the manatee. Visitors could still be provided with the option of swimming with other animals that do not suffer from the threat of extinction. I also wonder how this refuge was able to avoid the enforcement of the laws meant to protect species like the manatee. The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge should be setting an honorable precedent for how to treat endangered species – at this point they are not.

  12. BioCofc · November 29, 2010

    The exception that some laws have over endangered species should be avoided. What will happen if someone decides to create a wildlife refuge elsewhere with dive operators that have the same permission and training as those in Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. The problem when making an exception with someone or something is that you are then forced to make that same exception with others. Also, I don’t think it is worth taking the risk of letting these endangered species interact with humans, what if these actions are harmful for them? I think that is really sad that people start to care about something only when it starts to be profitable. The problem will come when the manatees stop bringing that many tourists and therefore, less sums of money. If this happens I am sure they will stop taking that much care about them.

    • WhySharksMatter · November 30, 2010

      “What will happen if someone decides to create a wildlife refuge elsewhere ”

      Individuals don’t create wildlife refuges. The Federal government does, and it takes a lot of effort.

  13. CA'S FAV · November 29, 2010

    It is both a good idea and a bad idea to let a local community profit from an endangered species. It is a good idea because it raises awareness about the condition of the species in question. If enough money is raised, perhaps it can be put towards a conservation effort to help save the animal. However, it is also a bad idea to try and commodify the experiences with the species. The species could be trained to misinterpret a potential life risk as a friendly visit and may become more dependent on human activity than it should for survival.

    I do not think we should be taking a chance at all with the manatees. Five thousand is a very small number, and if the remaining ones are killed because of ignorance and carelessness then the business endeavor will be for nothing and we will lose a very important sea creature.

    Too much regulation from any agency, including the ESA and the MMPA is never good for anyone. The organizations should impose guidelines, and local jurisdictions can make their own decisions on what is safe and what is rational in terms of species survival.

  14. Emily · November 30, 2010

    I truly think the best option is to allow this bit of tourism to occur. The fact that other people come to Florida to see the manatees gives an area that has literally nothing else, a sense of pride about where they are from. This sense of pride aids in their decision to take care of their environment and that includes the other species that live in it. A lot of the times people don’t look at someone else’s situation or point of view. The money is, of course a huge benefit, but I think the greater benefit is the sense of pride that the people who live their have taken on. I myself am from Florida and I understand the comment that manatees are like “speed bumps that only Yankees care about”. I do not agree with it, but what I mean is, i’ve witnessed that attitude. So many people speed right through manatee zones in their boats. Way too many people just don’t care about animals the way people commenting on this post do. It’s a pretty selfish thought, but if the quality of life is contingent on the survival of the manatees, then it gives these people a reason to care for them and gives them a greater chance at survival.

  15. CofCBio102 · November 30, 2010

    Hearing this circumstances takes my mind to the Cayman Islands where I went to Sting Ray City to swim with sting rays. There, tourists swim and feed sting rays. I am fully aware there are various protection acts to protect species, but I was unaware that those laws included swimming with mammals. It must be because of activities such that of Sting Ray City that I have gone through life not realizing the effects that simply swimming with a species may have. I also grew up in Columbus, Ohio where there is a huge manatee exhibit, in which you are also able to swim and feed their manatees.

    Sting Ray City began when men went out into the water at the same place, during the same time every day and fed the sting rays until it became habitual, and increasing amounts of sting rays traveled to meet the men. Did the sting rays become dependent on the men for food? Did they travel without regard of possible threats to this boat for their daily meal? Do they approach other boats for food?
    This makes me wonder if, in Florida, these people feed the manatees. If these manatees are in open water, are they approaching other boats? Do the same group of manatees entertain the people every day?

    If children were to keep there fish in a bathtub and let their friends come over and swim with them every day, would that child’s mother allow that? Probably not. Just because Florida is struggling economically does not give them the right to use these animals for tourist attractions. However, I do agree that these manatees have become something Florida is proud of instead of wanting to get rid of. Have there been any reported problems with manatees approaching boats or other threats? Maybe this is what is most healthy for not only Florida but also the manatees. We just have to think of what this may do nationally. We can’t make more of these with multiple species.

    This is honestly a hard call. I look forward to seeing more comments.

    • buh.ray.uh. · April 5, 2011

      The question of whether or not the manatees are being fed would have a great impact on a clearer answer for this debate. If the manatees are becoming dependent on people for food, they would potentially approach other boats and people and put themselves in danger.

      On the other hand, I don’t know what kind of brain capacity a manatee has. If they depend on these specific divers for food at certain times of day, maybe they would be able to recognize that other people swimming in the river are not the divers they are accustomed to. If so, they might not approach these strangers in hopes of food.

      Also, would being dependent on the divers for certain meals be that bad? If the manatees are able to distinguish them from other swimmers they would know that only those divers provide food. And if they did rely on the divers for food, does that not help them to survive because they are able to obtain meals to sustain themselves? Although, I do feel that manatees should be able to fend for themselves in the wild. So on that note, if the divers only fed them occasionally would a dependence on them for food become an issue?

      Aside from them being fed or not, I definitely believe that the divers should be able to continue educating visitors on the manatees. Places like Discovery Cove in Orlando, FL and the Manatee exhibit in Columbus, OH mentioned above, bring animals into the lives of people who would probably not otherwise ever see or especially come in contact with them. Having personal experiences with animals and becoming more educated about them, gives people a desire to become more involved in the animals welfare and protection. This awareness is certainly something that we would want to keep alive and I feel that that’s all the Crystal River divers are trying to do in their efforts to protect the manatees.

  16. J. Smalls · November 30, 2010

    Is this any different from profiting like aquariums? This is actually a tough one to determine. I do think that it is dangerous to allow anyone unauthorized to swim with species due to its manipulation.

  17. Talbtron · March 24, 2011

    It’s pretty astounding to see how many ways we’ve contributed to the endangerment of these manatees. To cease interaction after we’ve caused these damages seems irresponsible. While we may be largely responsible for the endangerment, we should continue interaction to help solve the problem of their endangerment. Having read the ways in which human interaction can negatively affect manatee behavior, I wonder if there are any safer ways in which both can interact, while at the same time promoting efforts towards conservation? Efforts towards conservation should take greater priority over using manatees for tourism purposes.

  18. Callinectes · April 10, 2011

    Would it be better to put a few manatees in captivity and let people tap on the glass? From an educational point of view, direct interaction with an animal like a manatee will have a more profound and lasting impact on the human than simply looking at video presentation or listening to someone speak. Interacting with the environment is how we get people interested in the environment. If the divers are trained and aware of situations that can be harmful to the manatee’s, the participants are getting a unique and personal experience, the local economy is being improved, and awareness and tolerance of manatees is being increased, where’s the problem? The same scenario may not positive for other endangered species, but what if they didn’t do these dives? At the least the locals would still consider manatees “speed bumps” and there would be far fewer people concerned with their protection. If interaction leads to increased awareness and protection, maybe a similar scenario would be beneficial for other endangered species.

  19. Cameron · April 28, 2011

    The Manatee’s endangerment is an extremely unfortunate issue, as is the topic being discussed. The controversy of whether or not human interaction such as the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, which allows visitors to not only swim with the manatee but it some cases, touch them too is certainly something to be debated. In most cases dealing with endangered species it is best to let them go untouched and out of all human interaction. This particular case however is a rather difficult situation. Because this animal has already been man handled and exposed to human resources, it has become somewhat dependent of their resources and possibly accustom to interactions it gets from humans. Something to consider is that due to the extremely low numbers of manatees left and its classification of being an endangered animal, it is almost impossible for the issue of endangerment to be fixed with out the help of the humans. In order to hopefully restore the population (which might not even be possible) will most likely require our help. That being said, some might have strong opinions as to why these animals should be left alone however, in my opinion our help seems like the best alternative at this poin

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