Archive for October, 2009

About two years ago some local Florida manatee lovers took some disturbing video of tourists and tour guides pestering manatees. Tracy Colson and Steve Kingry posted shots on YouTube of tour guides holding manatees so that tourists could touch them. Some tourists also kicked them and tried to sit on the sea cows. Finally, about two years later, something might actually be done to protect this endangered species whose population has dwindled to about 3,000 from Florida hooligans.

Spurred on by the videos, this summer the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) officially asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to ban “Swim with Manatee” programs. Tourists aren’t supposed to get within 50 yards of dolphins or 100 yards of whales in NOAA’s (voluntary) guidelines for those tour operators. But at least there is some enforcement for whale boats. NOAA also won’t let tour operators show ads that have people interacting with, chasing, petting or riding whale or dolphins in the Dolphin Sense and Whale Smart programs. So how can tours advertise swimming with the far more endangered manatee?

Before I had heard about any of this going on in Florida, I saw ads online for sleazy outfits around Cancun that advertised Swim With Manatees programs. Yuck, I thought. Don’t people know that manatees (or any animals) don’t want to be forced to swim with them. But I had no idea there were plenty of places in Florida getting away with it, too. Then I read an incredible story travel writer Andrew Mersmann did for Passport Magazine last year about Florida manatee tours that end up harassing manatees.

Mersmann says people in the industry know exactly which are the bad ones. He went on both to see what was really going on. The captain of one tour told the groups: “It’s a good day if you see a manatee, but it’s not a great day unless you touch one.”  You are, of course, not supposed to pet the manatees any more than you’re supposed to cuddle a polar bear. The difference is manatees can’t fight back. And even when they try to get away, videos posted on YouTube show, the tour guides restrain them so the tourists can play.

What’s wrong with swimming with manatees? Morally, if you bother manatees, they stop what they’re doing. Manatees don’t have frivolous hobbies; whatever they’re doing, they need to do it to survive. They’re an endangered species. They need to eat grass, nurse from their mothers, sleep, come up to the surface to breathe.

Legally pestering, holding, riding, kicking manatees–again, all documented–is a violation of Florida state law, the Endangered Species and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which bans “taking” a manatee. Taking is defined doing anything on purpose or by negligence “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” It goes on to clarify that it includes “the restraint or detention of a marine mammal, no matter how temporary…causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.”

The Marine Mammal Commission has recommended not allowing people to approach within 10 feet of manatees. (If they come to you, that’s fine. And that’s exactly what skilled manatee watchers say will happend if people would just be patient.) The manatees, Mersmann writes often leave lagoons as soon as the tour boats show up.

In August the Fish and Wildlife Service basically said no to the request to ban the programs, reasoning, more or less, that harassing manatees was already illegal. And that they could only provide some protections to threatened animals and since manatees are already endangered–a notch worse–they’re out of luck.

“They saw that harasment of mantees is illegal,” says PEER staff attorney Christine Erickson. “What they’re allowing people to do is causing harassment.” So PEER is going to take the FWS to court. They want to get more sanctuaries set up and ban the swim with programs in the winter, which the manatees need to be in the warm shallow water to survive. The sanctuaries are small areas with the warmest water where manatees can go and people can’t. The manatees know that and retreat there when they get tired of people. Let’s hope this

Let’s hope this finally means the manatees will get a break.

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A century after the cougar officially disappeared from Kansas, an alert hunter on a tree stand got several photos that for the first time since 1904 prove there’s a live mountain lion in the state since 1904. This may set off another round of what Jeff Beringer, a biologist with the state of Missouri, told the Wall Street Journal was “cougar hysteria.” As the population of mountain lions grows in the west and expands east, biologists at the Cougar Network are mapping the stunning number of confirmed sightings that now hit every state west of the Mississippi and eight states east of it, including Illinois, New York and Maine.

The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks made the confirmation just through the photo–they didn’t find any scat, hair, tracks or other traces. The hunter snapped seven pictures in the brief moments the cat examined bait corn–moments in which most big cat witnesses don’t think clearly enough to grab their camera. A Department spokesman Mark Shoup says the cougar never stopped walking and left the area after he looked up at the hunter. According to McClatchy newspapers, the hunter took the pictures on Oct. 12 in northwest WaKeeney in Trego County.

Many cougars have been seen by people in Kansas in the last couple decades, even though the closest established population is in Colorado, hundreds of miles away. Audubon of Kansas has been keeping track of all the potential mountain lion sightings and rumored shootings. One big cat was confirmed (legally) killed a couple years ago. But one dead cougar doesn’t mean that there are any left in the population. Especially since bachelor cats are known to roam hundreds of miles looking for a female.

Other states are sure to get more of these successful sightings as years go by. Kansans have been so firmly convinced that they had mountain lions already, they’re probably not going to go cougar hysterical about it.

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Ilya, the missing manatee, may be headed the wrong way–back up to New York City, instead of down south to Florida and the warm water he needs to survive. Someone saw what they thought was a manatee near Bayonne, NJ, but by the time rescuers came out, there was no animal, says Bob Schoelkopf, founding director of Brigantine’s Marine Mammal Stranding Center, which would rescue Ilya if they could just find and catch him.

FWC photo by Tom Reinert

Ilya, who is 16 and known for his missing tail chunk and a white scar on his head, befuddled scientists by swimming from his native Miami all the way up to Cape Cod this summer. Now he needs to get to waters at least 68 degrees–the Carolinas at this time of year–or he could die.

The last time anyone definitely saw Ilya was when he ate a crate of lettuce from biologists outside the Conoco Phillips refinery in Linden, NJ, last Friday. Then he disappeared into the dark, cold waters of the Arthur Kill, the 10-mile tidal estuary between New Jersey and Staten Island. If that was him near Bayonne, that puts him in the Kill Van Kull, a shorter passage that’s a few miles closer to the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan and the heavy traffic of the Port of Newark.

But rescuers are dubious it really was Ilya. It’s not so much that they think there’s a second manatee up here–though one did spend the summer in Raritan Bay. Schoelkopf says he didn’t get the spotter’s name (and manatee identification credentials) and the call came in eight hours after the supposed encounter. Marine creatures can just be hard to ID. “I’ve had Coast Guard people tell me there’s a whale and calf trying to get up a waterfall and we get there and it’s two logs,” he says. Manatees are such a rare sight, people–especially northerners–could easily get it wrong. When seals turn up in winter, Schoelkopf says, he gets calls about “sea lions, walruses, anything.”

Ilya was drawn to Linden by the plant’s warm water discharge, so Schoelkopf called four power plants on the Jersey Shore to ask them to look out for Ilya. In Florida, power plants have become such a popular hang-out in the winter, biologists from Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission use the gathering to take a census. The New Jersey plants area already on the look-out for stranded sea turtles, who are also drawn to their warm water, Schoelkopf explains. (A rare and endangered Green Sea Turtle recently turned up in Rumson with cold shock, he says.) In northern New Jersey, the Linden plant is the only one.

If anyone does see the manatee, the stranding network is ready to go with a net at a moment’s notice. They have a salt water they put on the ideal manatee temperature of 74 this week just for Ilya. If they can catch him, they’ll bring him to Brigantine and warm him up for a few days before getting him to Florida, probably by an awaiting Coast Guard cargo plane.

If you see the manatee, call the Marine Mammal Stranding Center’s 24-hour number: (609) 266-0538. Try to take a picture and email it to mmsc@verizon.net

Wanna see a manatee not in danger? Try these places.

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Is it the horny, endangered parrot, pointed out by Zoologix? (This flightless Kakapo name Sirocco was hand-raised and imprinted on people. So it’s only natural he wants to hook-up with people. Watch out, he’s looking for more friends on facebook)

Or the spiteful dolphins, who flick jellyfish out of the sea at every opportunity?

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Ilya, the manatee that reappeared off Staten Island Thursday–way too far north for his safety–has gone missing again, thwarting any attempt to rescue him from the cold waters. Ilya ate a whole case of lettuce “and was last seen going back into the river,” says Chuck Underwood, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This was late yesterday afternoon, and there’s been no sighting of the animal since then.”

Ilya, a 16-year-old manatee distinguished by his boat scars (a white one on his head and a missing chunk of tail), surprised biologists this summer by migrating all the way up to Cape Cod from his Florida home. Now he’s racing the cold weather–and seems to have been entranced by the false promise of warmth from the warm water run-off of an oil refinery in Elizabeth, NJ. The spot that he’s at is warm enough, says Underwood, but the rest of the Arthur Kill tidal estuary dips below his requisite 68 degrees. That means he should be in North Carolina by now, according to NOAA’s water temperature map. That’s about 200 miles, or three or four days manatee travel.

Biologists figured Ilya was safely headed to warmer waters after he wasn’t seen since an appearance in Milford, CT, on September  26. Then he showed up in a heavily industrial area. Underwood won’t say exactly where–but it’s guarded private property anyway.

The Brigantine Marine Mammal Stranding Station has plans to rescue him–if they can find him and catch him. Rescuers typically keep manatees at risk in place by offering them food and the fresh water they crave. But that sometimes has the effect of buoying their spirits so much they take off. The rescuers were put off by the bad weather Saturday–and had other rescues to do.

Want to See a Manatee in the Wild? Check out this map and list of places.

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 Ilya, the manatee who swam all the way up to Cape Cod from Florida this summer, may need to be rescued today from the stormy, cold waters off Elizabeth, NJ, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Chuck Underwood says. The endangered 1,000-pound manatee was positively identified yesterday from photos taken near a refinery in Elizabeth, a heavily industrial part of New York harbor near Staten Island.

For weeks biologists and manatee lovers wondered where Ilya was, hoping he was making it back down to Florida, where manatees need to spend the winter to keep warm enough. He was last seen in Milford, CT, on September 26. So, everyone figured–or at least hoped–that he would be down at least around the Carolinas by now.

Then yesterday, Underwood says, the Wildlife Service got a call: “We’ve got your manatee.” A quick consultation with U.S. Geological Survey NOAA, which keeps an elaborate database of 2,000-some manatees known by their boating scars, confirmed it was Ilya. His run in with boats have made him easy to ID: he has a big chunk taken out of his tail and a white scar on his head. Nicole Adimey, who runs the manatee rescue and rehabilitation program says that he still is relatively lucky for a manatee: he’s never before had to be brought in for treatment.

Right now the wildlife service is trying to keep Ilya in place at a private, undisclosed refinery while a Nor’easter storm blows through. He was attracted to the spot because the run-off makes it warm. It’s about 70 degrees right in his microclimate, Underwood says. Meanwhile the rest of the harbor, as you can see from this water temperature map, is dipping into the 50s and 60s. They’ve authorized the people at the private refinery to give Ilya vegetables and a hose for fresh water in hopes that will make him stay put. They have a net and may attempt a rescue today, Underwood says.

They can move quickly because a nearby stranding network facility has a heated, in ground salt water pool available for him. They’ll be able to assess his health and see if he’s ready for transport back down to Florida.
taken. Although the 70-degree water around the factory run-off is warm enough, if he leaves that heated area, he’ll be in trouble in the cold water nearby.
The rescues can be dangerous–mainly because by the time they are tried the manatees are usually in trouble. Last year the wildlife service captured Dennis, a smaller, weaker manatee in Dennis, MA, and trucked him down to Florida, only to have him die just as he arrived to a rescue facility. Let’s hope Ilya does better.

Want to See a Manatee in the Wild? Check out this map and list of places.

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More than 20 years ago, Ben Bressler first got the idea of taking tourists to see the whitecoats, the adorable white baby harp seals, which are famous for their brutal slaughter the on Canadian ice floes. Bressler, along with IFAW, figured if he could find a way to make more money off showing off seals than killing them, he could change their thinking.

“It’s a much bigger issue there than the actual revenue,” Bressler says. “The rest of Canada has nothing to do with hunting, but feels that Americans shouldn’t be sticking their nose into their business.”

So, he started bringing tourists. Decades later, both tourists and hunters still visit the baby seals. But Bressler’s tours have gradually eroded the defiant enthusiasm for the seal hunt. In a world increasingly covered with identical suburban sprawl, the Magdelan Islands profit by drawing people to a place that looks completely different and has something no one can copy. No corporation can open up a franchise of its seal pup nursery in Times Square. The seal tours were just the first of Bressler’s animal journeys: now he runs Natural Habitat Adventures, which takes tiny groups to secluded areas where animals live in the wild.

But to get there, Bressler first had to tackle all of the logistics and politics of the seal hunt. About 70% of the the hunting happens on “the Front,” the wildly inacessable sea off Newfoundland and Labrador. But the pictures and protest focus on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which, by comparison with the Front, is only moderately inaccessible. Hunters go out in late March on Gulf of St. Lawrence and in early April on the Front. The hunters on the Front tend to shoot seals from big commercial vessels that can go long distances. The St. Lawrence hunters tend ride out i the freezing water in rowboats, which they have to haul over ice, to reach the seals, which they club to death.

Obviously, neither the winter cruise from Newfoundland nor the rowboat tour of freezing St. Lawrence was going to appeal to tourists. So, Bressler first tried to helicopter the seal lovers in from Prince Edward Island, but when that proved too far, he launched them from Ille de Madeleine, a tiny island outpost of Quebec, where some seal hunters live.

And he offered the seal hunters another job. If they didn’t hunt seals at all that season, they could work for him in a more comfortable job, taking Americans, Europeans and Japanese to the seals. The money worked out about the same–about $3,000 a season. But, Bressler offered a steady check–without the risk of a poor season or blowing too much money getting to the port in Nova Scotia. Bressler knows that groups like HarpSeals.org call for a boycott of all Canadian tourism. They single out the seals tours specifically because they employ hunters or former hunters. Bressler just says that the environmental movement needs all kinds of helpers and viewpoints.

At first the little community, whose tourist industry basically shuts down in winter, suspected the groups were animal activists in disuise. “They were not vey welcoming at first,” he says. He wanted to convince them they were “really there just to see seals not protest and bring an alternative source of revenue. Gradually they started to trust us.”

The baby seals are completely docile and trusting–which is what makes the hunt so easy and so revolting at the same time. Their trust also means visitors go right up to the seals, just like they were on the Galápagos. (Canadians are quick to point out that they banned hunting the pups under 2 weeks with the valuable white coats  in 1987, but Sea Shepherd points out that just waiting until they molt into an uglier coat at 2-4 weeks doesn’t make it any more humane.)

The hunt is going on at the same time, but Bressler takes care to steer clear, usually going to more distant ice. One time his helicopter was rerouted over the hunting site and he did get to see the gore. He and his passengers were understandably upset.

The tours, he says, have fallen off as the protests have calmed down. The operation was never terribly profitable anyway, he says. March used to be called Seal Hunt Season but know it’s known as Seal Watch Season. “The younger people from the islands have lost the taste for this way of living,” he says. The dozens of tourists who visit every year have got to have played a part in that shift.

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