Two years ago, during a cool week in March, an out-of-town friend and I made an early morning trek to Crystal River, Florida. Our goal: Get our manatee on.
Crystal River lies in Citrus County, which is the only place in the world where humans are legally allowed to swim with the endangered manatee, that sweet tub of sea cow that is as synonymous with Florida as alligators and large mice. In fact, there is hardly any other reason to visit places like Crystal River, a town of 3,600 with a nuclear power plant and several trailer parks. The manatee tours have put this little hamlet on the map and led to one-of-a-kind human/animal interactions that have touched thousands of people’s hearts.
So, naturally, a few slack-jawed yokels had to ruin it for the rest of us.
In 2007, animal rights activists filmed some Crystal River visitors harassing the manatees — chasing them, riding them, separating moms from babies — and then released the videos to media outlets. Reporters followed the story and, for a while, it seemed the tours that made Crystal River famous might halt.
Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and federal wildlife officials did not immediately ban the practice. My friend and I went on to have awesome time viewing these gentle creatures in their natural habitat. I rank that day as one of the best ever in Florida, or anywhere else for that matter.
But earlier this month, an environmental group — Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility — filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking the federal agency to ban the practice of swimming with the manatees. PEER is the first group to formally petition the agency and they’re leaving open the possibility of litigation.
Honestly, I can’t blame the activists. Harassing manatees is akin to pushing down old ladies — maybe worse. Old ladies at least have purses to smack you with; the gentle manatee has no way to defend itself. The animal cannot even swim very fast and the shallow depth of the springs makes an escape from some belligerent fratboy impossible.
But, at the same time, banning such a Florida tradition over a few ignorant tourists seems a bit, well, overboard. The PEER group even decrys touching the manatees at all. If they’ve ever been in these waters they’d know: some manatees like people and enjoy being petted on the tummy or scratched under the flipper. The law says to allow the manatee to come to you first. I think that’s a good rule for any animal.
So what’s the solution?
Like many problems, we already have the solution. The rules just have to be enforced — vigorously. So I have a proposal: The Manatee Narc Force. [Enter patriotic horns]
The idea is simple: volunteers and/or state wildlife officials hang out undercover in Crystal River waters or secretly attend the many tour guides that take visitors out on springs for some manatee action. The Manatee Narc Force watches for violators of the official Manatee Code.
If someone is found harassing a manatee, the Manatee Narc Force immediately fines them $500 — about five-times the cost of the average manatee tour. Depending on the severity of offense, jail time of up to 60 days is possible.
This is already the law. But we need to go a step further.
Under this proposal, the Manatee Narc Force will hold tour operators to a higher standard. If the Manatee Narc Force fines three visitors from the tour boat’s party in a 12-month span, they will fine the tour operator $3,000. Hell, make it $10,000. That way, after a violation, some tour guides might even order everyone back on the boat for the rest of the trip, with no refunds. If that happened, you can be sure Mr. Manatee Molester will get his ass beat in the parking lot by some dad with two upset kids. Hell, I’d do it.
Also, if a tour company has more than 10 violations in a five year period, the Manatee Narc Force revokes the company’s right to be in the water. Problem solved.
“But how will we pay for such enforcement?” my conservative friends ask.
Simple: the fines.
If that’s not enough (and hopefully if they are doing the job it won’t be enough), the federal government and Crystal River will pony up the additional funds. After all, Crystal River is benefiting from the tourism and they stand to lose a lot more money if the ban goes into effect. Plus, considering the manatee is federally protected and the Manatee Narc Force would create jobs desperately needed in that area, the proposal should qualify for stimulus funds.
This isn’t some grand scheme. There are already laws, fines and punishments in place to deal with manatee harassment. The problem is enforcement. As one local TV station reported, state officials only cited one person last year — after nearly 1,600 hours of patrol in an area that hosts nearly 100,000 visitors a year. Folks, if we want to keep this unique Florida treasure, we must be more strict.
Let’s create the Manatee Narc Force before it’s too late.