Who's Manateeing the Phones?

State wildlife officials say that amateur hotlines set up to help protect endangered manatees are putting the animals at risk

Kipp Frohlich, biological administrator of the DEP's bureau of protected-species management, considers the feuding between manatee activists and experts no more than a recurrent theme in Florida wildlife politics. In the early '90s, Frohlich had problems with a West Coast group called the Manatee Alert, which took out newspaper ads telling people to call the group with manatee sightings and emergencies. "We had a dialogue," he recalls, with weariness in his voice. "Eventually we persuaded them to incorporate information about the FMP hotline in their news releases." But it wasn't easy, and it didn't happen quickly.

To Frohlich, hot tempers are simply a sign of the urgency of the manatee-protection problem, which has seldom been more acute, at least in Broward County. In 1998 a total of seven manatee deaths were reported in Broward County; already this year there have been eight, an increase that has Schrager stumped. "A lot of the corpses we've seen have been too decayed for a necropsy," he says. "So we don't know what's going on. It could be a coincidence, or it could be a sign of something larger going on." The last dramatic increase in the manatee mortality rate occurred in 1996, when the "red tide" algae invasion caused the number of manatee deaths in Florida to leap from 201 to 415 in a single year. (So far this year, there have been 134 manatee deaths statewide.)

Ideally Schrager would like to see Mary Anne Gray and her ilk get out of the hotline business completely. But as Frohlich says, running a hotline "may be ill-advised, but it's not illegal." In the end the bad blood between various camps seems to have made meaningful dialogue difficult and contributed to a situation in which a simple solution may have been overlooked.

"We could just add on a line that if you have a report about an injured manatee, you should call the FMP," proposes MSF board member Kathy Schwartz. But Gray is contemptuous of the FMP, insisting (wrongly) that callers merely get an answering machine. (Actually, callers get a menu of options, including the option of bypassing the menu and going directly to a dispatcher.)

Even if a simple solution were to prevail, chances are it will amount to merely a truce, not a treaty. Given the passion involved when it comes to one of Florida's most renowned living natural treasures, future battles in the manatee wars seem certain.

Contact Paul Belden at his e-mail address: Paul_Belden@newtimesbpb.com

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