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Protecting Florida's gentle giants: The manatee speed zone enforcement program

A man standing on a boat pointing a firearm
Refuge Officer Robert Kreiling, Speed Zone Enforcement, operating his radar unit. Photo by S. Rios, FWS.
A man on a boat in front of a sign reading Slow Speed
Refuge Officer Walter Duran, Speed Zone Enforcement. Photo courtesy of J. Morgan, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
A man sitting on a boat with a vest and sunglasses
Refuge Officer Yurie Aitken, Speed Zone Enforcement. Photo by J. Elofson, FWS.

Florida has more Endangered and Threatened Species than any state in the nation. One of its most high profile and popular species is the Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian Manatee. Numbering between 3,000 to 7,000 animals depending on the survey, the manatee presents unique enforcement issues for Florida's Manatee Refuge Officers (MRO's), and Special Agents.

The Florida manatee is currently protected by the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Florida Marine Sanctuary Act. As such, it is the responsibility of three full-time (MRO's); Robert Kreiling, Yurie Aitken, and Walter Duran, to enforce the vessel speed restrictions in the Manatee Zones statewide. Special Agents assist the three MRO's during the "big five" Manatee Speed Zone Enforcement Details on Labor Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Columbus Day, and either Veterans Day or Thanksgiving Weekend.

The Service's officers and agents are on the water for up to 12 hours a day for three or four days straight during these long weekends in high heat and humidity conditions. They now use modern enforcement tools such as the unmarked 24' Shearwater Bay Boats with Mercury-Verado 250 HP four-stroke, low emissions motors. These state-of-the-art vessels come equipped with power poles, low-profile blue LED lights, sirens, GPS, and onboard Tough Book Computers to run state and federal Law Enforcement databases. The Service's officers are certified in RADAR and now monitoring boat traffic speeds with moving and stationary RADAR.

The Service's officers enforce the state manatee speed zones, as well as the federal zones, which are in place to ensure that boats only travel at speeds which afford the slow- moving mammals an opportunity to avoid deadly vessel strikes. Vessel strikes kill and maim large numbers of these gentle giants annually. Inboard-outboard, outboard lower units, propellers and vessel hulls, including personal watercraft, all kill and wound manatees by impact, amputation, and laceration. Almost every manatee in Florida bears this type of wound or scar. In order to efficiently enforce the law and to arrest hard-to-catch violators, our officers operate unmarked vessels. These boats are stealthy; however, they are fully-equipped Law Enforcement Patrol boats, resembling any other fishing or flats boat on the water.

There are several types of restricted manatee zones in Florida's coastal marine and river environments. There are manatee sanctuaries where there is no motorized traffic allowed at all. Then there are idle speed zones, slow speed zones, and finally 25 and 30 MPH speed zones. MRO's and Special Agents may issue federal citations or Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission citations or warnings while on patrol. Currently, citations may be printed electronically, or hand-written, and are usually issued on the spot. Officers also may issue citations after- the-fact, which are mailed certified mail from the office if conditions on the water are unsafe, or the violator's background history can't be researched at the time of the stop.

Violator's information is listed in the State of Florida's Arrest Net database and the Service's Office of Law Enforcement's investigations system called the Law Enforcement Management and Information System (LEMIS). All violators' identification and vessel identification, as well as offense data, contained in these systems, and are available to both state and federal officers. There are many habitual criminals in Florida, with some having been cited up to seventeen times for the same offense. Thanks to modern databases, these offenders can be tracked. Our fine schedule is based on a sliding scale which usually starts at $125 for the first offense, $250 for the second, and $350, or a mandatory court appearance in front of the U.S. Magistrate Judge, or in the case of a trial, potentially the U.S. District Court Judge. Previous violations issued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also count, and those violators who have received a previous written warning are usually cited with a violation notice the next time they are stopped. Service officer's cases have resulted in fines of up to $3,800, and some repeat violators have been barred from operating in a manatee zone permanently. Repeat violators also run the risk of jail time.

The three MRO's patrol Florida's waterways daily on solo patrol and also might be teamed up with officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Sheriff's Office, or the local police department. The Service's MROs spearhead and coordinate all of the manatee details or wolf-packs on holiday weekends when boating traffic is highest. Prior to these details, the MRO's coordinate an in-briefing where all participating agencies share intelligence, and coordinate their enforcement efforts. It is not uncommon for a manatee detail to have up to 10 Service boats on the water, along with boats from several other enforcement agencies.

The U.S. Coast Guard also forwards all of their Manatee Zone Violations issued anywhere in Florida to the MRO's who actually issue the notices. On an average year from 500-700 federal notices of violation under the Endangered Species Act are issued, and full case reports are opened documenting these stops, the court actions, and the payments, convictions, or acquittals.

Manatee law enforcement wasn't always so comprehensive. Twenty years ago, Special Agents and those Refuge Officers assigned to refuges with manatees sporadically enforced the speed zone regulations and most of the enforcement was left to the State of Florida. In the late 1990's, the Save the Manatee Club filed suit against the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. As a result of U.S. District Court rulings from this lawsuit, Congress now grants a yearly special appropriation to the Service of approximately $500,000 for the enforcement and protection of the Florida manatee. Until the last 10 years, agents used camouflage "kicker" boats with small outboard motors, pressed into duty after waterfowl season, to enforce the zones. All of the agents have stories about trying to stop speedboats with just a badge held out in front of them on the water! During this period there were no MRO's, so details comprised of special agents from all over the country who were routinely flown in, briefed by the Florida Agents, and then turned loose to enforce the manatee Zones!

The Service's Office of Law Enforcement administers the manatee enforcement program out of the Groveland, Florida, Resident Agent in Charge (RAC) Office supervised by RAC Andrew Aloise. This office, along with Jim Valade of the North Florida Ecological Services Office in Jacksonville, Florida, ensures that the signage for the zones are in place, correct and readable, provides equipment, supervision, and administrative support. Law Enforcement Support Assistant Sheila Rios in the Groveland Office is at the heart of the program, and ensures that the three MRO's she supports have what they need to do the job, as well as coordinating boat and vehicle storage, repair, and purchase. She also takes care of something of great importance to the officers. Personnel and payroll coordination and entry for the officers!

Refuge Officer Robert Kreiling, a Florida native, came to the program from the National Park Service where he worked as a Park Ranger for 12 years, serving at many parks around the country. Robert is the longest-serving officer in the program, having been in the program for seven years. He originally worked with the program's founder, retired Special Agent Frank Kuncir, affectionately known in the program as either the "Manatee Czar" or "Osprey One."

Refuge Officer Yurie Atiken comes to the program from Refuges where he served as a Refuge Officer at J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. He previously served as a U.S. Border Patrol Agent and as a corrections officer at the state prison in Utah, his home state. Officer Walter Duran, the newest member of the team, hails from El Salvador where he lived until he was twelve. He served as a Postal Police Officer, a U.S. Park Police Officer, a U.S. Park Ranger and finally a Refuge Officer in San Francisco prior to joining the program. Sheila Rios joined the program after a maternity sabbatical from the Office of Law Enforcement where she worked as an investigative program assistant for retired Florida RAC Vance Eaddy. She also previously worked in Budget and Administration in the Service's Northeast Regional Office.

There are several Manatee Program Alumni now working elsewhere in the Service and in other agencies including Special Agent Robert Register, Vero Beach; Refuge Officer Bruce Butler, Puerto Rico; John Ross, Division of Refuges, and Marty White, Department of Homeland Security. Thanks to all who have helped make the program the success it is today.

Submitted by Andrew Aloise, Office of Law Enforcement, Groveland, Florida

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