Bad to the Bone

The dead manatee lay on Watson Island. At dawn its carcass would be retrieved by a state biologist and shipped to St. Petersburg for a necropsy to determine the cause of death. Such is the destiny that the state government has mandated for deceased sea cows in an effort to arrest the alarming decline of their population.

Something different, however, was in store for this particular manatee. During the night, someone came along and with a large, finely honed instrument, filleted the ten-foot-long mammal, slitting it open from belly to tail.

"It was very professionally done," observes Jorge Pic centsn, the senior resident agent at the local office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is investigating the incident. "It was a very clean cut. It was as if you sliced a block of butter with a sharp knife, leaving no trace as to where the mark was."

Pic centsn estimates that the butcher made off with between 40 and 60 pounds of the animal's light-pink meat. "There's no market for selling manatee meat in the United States," Pic centsn says, "but it's a delicacy down in the Caribbean." (It is illegal to possess A or eat A endangered species.)

Susan Markley, natural resources director for Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), says she's heard that manatee, which historically was hunted by South Florida Indians for food and other economic uses, tastes similar to pork or veal.

Although Florida law has protected manatees since 1893, poaching was frequently reported during the Depression and World War II. According to local lore, manatees once were corralled as a source of food in a small cove just south of Key West, at Cowpen Key. The most recent known local slaughter of manatees for food occurred some fourteen years ago, Markley says, when the carved-up carcasses of two animals were discovered in the Miami River.

She says the manatee found on Watson Island apparently was not killed for its meat; the butchering took place after the dead animal had been hauled out of the water by the Florida Marine Patrol near the Venetian Causeway. A DERM employee photographed the animal after the Marine Patrol dropped it off at the Watson Island boat ramp on Sunday afternoon, March 5, Markley reports, and adds that when the DERM employee left, the animal was intact.

"It had been recently killed, and had large slashes on its back consistent with a propeller wound," she says. One of the propeller blades evidently sliced the manatee's spinal cord in half.

This is the fourth manatee death reported in Dade this year, and the 54th in Florida, more than double the number of deaths reported last year during the same period, asserts Nancy Sadusky, communications director for the Maitland-based group Save the Manatee. According to figures from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Florida Marine Research Institute, 192 manatees died last year, out of an estimated population of 1800.

Sadusky points out that the number of deaths keeps increasing, even as state and federal lawmakers pass more and more laws designed to protect manatees. For example, there were seven deaths in 1974, the year after the animal was included in the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and 77 deaths in 1979, the year after the state legislature passed the "Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act," which declared the entire state a refuge for the animals.

The apparent upsurge in manatee deaths during those years is partially accounted for by improved record-keeping techniques, Sadusky explains. Other factors include ever-increasing numbers of boaters and poor enforcement of existing laws.

In 1989 the governor and cabinet ordered thirteen counties, including Dade, to develop manatee protection plans. Among other things, the plans were supposed to designate low-speed zones for boaters, to spell out criteria for the development of new marinas, and to contain provisions for law enforcement, education, and habitat preservation. Six years later Dade has yet to ratify a plan, although it has adopted the state-mandated speed limits. Those took effect here in 1991, about the same time that the other twelve counties also began posting signs in their waterways designating low-speed zones. The limits may have prompted a temporary dip in manatee deaths, which fell from 206 in 1990 to 145 in 1993, before soaring again last year.

The problem, says Sadusky, is that counties are not enforcing the speed limits. "We're really on the honorary compliance system and it's not working," she concludes.

The lack of enforcement of low-speed zones may be remedied if Dade ever adopts a manatee protection plan. Susan Markley, who is one of the DERM employees developing the plan along with a citizens' advisory committee, promises a draft will be presented at public workshops in a few weeks.

This will be the second version to be examined publicly. The first draft, completed in 1992, met with stiff criticism from businesses who feared its effects. In response the Metro-Dade Commission set up the thirteen-member citizens' advisory committee, which comprises both environmentalists and businesspeople.

For the past two years, the committee has met once a month to revise the several-hundred-page plan. Vehement disputes arose over topics such as whether to require dock fenders along the narrow stretch of the Miami River known as the Canyon. Environmentalists argued the fenders were needed to prevent manatees from being pinned between the side of a boat and a dock's bulkhead. Businesspeople say the risk is hypothetical, and although they agreed to install the fenders in wider areas, they drew the line at the Canyon. Typical of the tenuous nature of the group's consensus, that issue is still unresolved. Nevertheless, members insist their version of the plan will be far less controversial than the first draft.

"I think it's the best plan that can be crafted at this time," asserts committee member Ed Swakon, who represents the Marine Council, a group of about 500 marine-related businesses. "It's not an ideal plan from the environmental perspective or from the boater or mariner perspective, but it's going to be my recommendation [that the Marine Council] support the plan."

"We all lost," confides Bonnie Barnes-Kelley, a member of Friends of the Oleta River and a fellow advisory board member. "I think it's not perfect, but it's certainly something that we worked on for two years, and everyone who wanted to have input certainly had enough time. I think it needs to be implemented as soon as possible, as evidenced by the terrible events over the weekend."

Jorge Pic centsn, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent, says he still has no idea who butchered the manatee on Watson Island. Save the Manatee and the federal government are each offering a $2500 reward for anyone with information regarding the identity of the poacher. The hotline numbers for tips are 526-2789 or 800-432-5646.


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