Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Manatee insanity

There's probably no native Florida species more closely associated with the state than the manatee. Wildlife officials estimate there are only about 5,000 of the marine mammals living in Florida waters.

This winter an estimated 200 manatees have perished due to record cold temperatures.

The manatee - which was placed on the first endangered species list issued in 1967 - has "stirred curiosity and passions for more than a hundred years.

"They are Florida's most famous endangered species, as well as its most controversial. Manatees appear on hundreds of license plates, attract hordes of tourists, and expose the uneasy relationships between science and the law and between freedom and responsibility like no other animal."

If this piques your interest and you want to learn more about the manatee, your wait is over.

My friend Craig Pittman, (left) who covers environmental issues for Florida's largest newspaper,

the St. Petersburg Times, has written a book that will answer all your manatee questions, and more.

"Manatee Insanity" is scheduled to be released by the University Press of Florida May 9.

Pittman described his book in an email to me today:
My new book is called "Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida's Most Endangered Species." It's non-fiction, but it has a lot more comedy in it than my last book, "Paving Paradise" (which comes out in paperback this spring, btw).

The book's wacky cast of characters includes Miami Herald writer Carl Hiaasen, O.J. Simpson (who once paid a $130 fine for speeding through a Florida manatee zone in a 30-foot powerboat), Gloria Estefan, Bob Graham, Jimmy Buffett, Jeb Bush, Will Smith, Miami-Dade commissioner Natacha Seijas and a federal law enforcement officer who once went undercover as a gorilla. A lot of the action in the book takes place in and around Miami. In fact, the cover shot, an aerial photo of a boat clobbering a manatee, was taken in Biscayne Bay.

The story about the Miami-Dade manatee protection plan takes up the first part of the last chapter. It brings the book back full circle to the action in the first chapter (which takes place along the Miami River in the 1880s and 1890s) and also sets up the second part, which is all about the famous Snooty, the oldest manatee in captivity. Although best known as Manatee County's official mascot, Snooty was born at the old Miami Aquarium in 1948. The aquarium was in an old clipper ship on the bay front, where the Miami Heat now play.
Pittman also sent me a couple of excerpts from the prologue to the book and one of the chapters.

In the prologue Pittman explains how he arrived at the title for the book.
As the sun dipped low over the Gulf of Mexico on December 2, 2002, a chill wind rippled across the Caloosahatchee River. Gusts swirled through the streets of downtown Fort Myers, past the city’s riverfront convention center.

Near the convention center’s doors, a crowd of about three thousand milled around, waiting for showtime. Some in the crowd waved signs that proclaimed “Don’t Tread On Me!” “Don’t Give Up the Ship!” and “Save Our Jobs!” One man, dressed from head to toe in red, white, and blue, toted a large white cross labeled “Property Rights.”

There were skinny teenagers and white-haired retirees, scruffy sailors in tattered jeans, businessmen in sharply creased khakis, even one blond-haired woman in black leather pants, clacking around on impossibly high heels.

What brought them together on this cool evening was a white-hot anger. They were angry about new rules that they believed would hamper their livelihoods and lifestyles, rules designed to protect a homely marine mammal that had been classified as endangered for thirty-five years. One man in the crowd, a burly dock builder from Cape Coral named Mike McCartney, summed up the crowd’s feelings with a homemade T-shirt: “Stop the Manatee Insanity!”

Three local television stations parked their satellite trucks out front and dispatched roving reporters to interview people in the crowd. One of the people they interviewed was the blond woman in the leather pants. She turned out to be a local real estate agent named Kimberly D’Agostino, who would later complain, “This creature is infringing on my habitat.”
And in one section of the book Pittman goes into detail about about Miami-Dade County's attempts to rewrite its manatee protection plan to allow more boat docks to be built:
The push for a rewrite of the plan came from county commissioners who had a reputation for being unfriendly to the environment in general and manatees in particular. One commissioner made this very plain—to the point where South Florida television commentator [Jim DeFede] dubbed her “the Cruella De Vil of Biscayne Bay.”

“I am not a lover of manatees,” Miami-Dade commissioner Natacha Seijas announced during one meeting. She complained about manatees swimming in the canal behind her house. “As dumb as they always are,” she said, “they keep floating back and forth.”

Seijas said she wanted DERM employees “to come and pick them up,” although she offered no suggestions about where they should be relocated. She added, “I want to know how big that herd is, because if that herd is way too big, it is time to find something else to do with it.”

And during a discussion about taking steps to protect manatees in Biscayne Bay, Seijas said, “I don’t see why we need to be creating an environment so they can continue.”
Among the committee members the commissioners chose—in fact, the one picked by Seijas—was someone with more than a passing acquaintance with the laws governing manatee protection. He had a personal experience with them, sort of like Ron Bergeron’s experience with the laws protecting alligators.

Dick Bunnell built docks for a living. In 2005—the year before he was tapped to sit on the manatee protection plan committee—a federal judge fined him $150,000 for building docks in manatee habitat without getting permits from the Corps of Engineers. The judge also sentenced him to fifteen hundred hours of community service and five years of probation.

While Bunnell was building the illegal docks, which lasted from 2001 to 2004, DERM staffers repeatedly warned him that he would need federal permits for what he was doing, but he ignored them.

Needless to say, Bunnell had some strong opinions about what was wrong with the county’s manatee protection plan.

“There’s way too much restriction and resistance to docks and boat ramps and boat slips, and that’s a segment of our economy that’s so strong in South Florida,” he said...

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