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Protecting Florida's Gentle Giants
The Manatee Speed Zone Enforcement Program
by Andrew Aloise
Photo Credit: Tracy Colson
Florida has more federally-listed endangered and threatened species than any other state on the Atlantic coast. One of its most high profile and popular animals is the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus). Protecting the manatee presents unique law enforcement issues for Florida's Manatee Refuge Officers (MROs), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) Special Agents.
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 these 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, can 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. These state-of-the-art vessels come equipped with power poles, low-profile blue LED lights, sirens, radar, GPS, and onboard Tough Book Computers to run state and federal law enforcement databases.
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 miles per hour speed zones. MROs and Special Agents may issue federal citations or Florida Fish and Wildlife citations or warnings while on patrol.
The three MROs 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 MROs 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.
On an average year from 500 to700 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 was not 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. Today, the Service works in conjunction with numerous law enforcement agencies to ensure that these iconic creatures have safe waters to roam for future generations to enjoy.
Andrew Aloise, the resident agent in charge of law enforcement for the Service in Florida., can be reached at email@example.com or 352-429-1037.
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