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Save the Manatees?

Squeezing money from Florida's sea cows.

November 30, 2012
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In 1915 Carl Fisher, the man who invented Miami Beach and was a brilliant entrepreneur, had a not-so-brilliant idea for a new company. He called it Ocean Dairy Products and instead of cows was going to milk manatees. Don’t laugh; sea cow milk has more protein than land cow milk, and no lactose. It’s good stuff. However, I can’t figure out how you’d milk one, and most likely neither could Carl.

But get-rich schemes never die, especially in Florida, and others have gotten the same wild idea. Then there’s the Manacheese company (manacheese.com), with the tagline “Maybe it’s delicious.” The website looks real, but there’s no contact info.

I do know some folks who really are milking manatees, and doing quite well. Only instead of milk the Save the Manatee Club’s squeezing money, and lots of it, from Florida’s sea cows.

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As with China’s pandas, manatees make enticing poster children. If it’s cute and round, we want to protect it — and are willing to pay to do it. Which is why organizations like this one depend on keeping the manatee endangered. So much so that when, in 2006, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to change the status from endangered to threatened, manatee advocates lobbied to get this reversed, and won.

Not long ago The New York Times quoted Patrick Rose, a lobbyist for the club, as saying that manatees are “the best, most effective growth-management tool that exists.” They’re not looking for solutions.

Take the case of Dr. Edmund Gerstein, director of marine mammal research at Florida Atlantic University, who found a way to protect manatees. Gerstein discovered that the slower a boat moves, the harder it is for the animal to hear it. A boat traveling at idle speed is heard by a manatee only when it is about 13 feet away. Boats moving at 40 mph can be detected at 656 feet. Ironically, he concludes, slow speed zones are manatee death traps. To help, Gerstein devised an underwater alert that warns manatees at great distances, regardless of boat speed. To date he’s found no support from manatee lovers.

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The truth is that, as this magazine once reported, it’s not boats that are causing most of the manatee deaths — it’s golf courses. The runoff of fertilizers from these artificial pastures has killed the manatees’ shallow feeding grounds, forcing them to wander into open water and our boats.

But the lovable manatee has become a tourist-attracting state symbol. So don’t expect that manatee zones will be reduced.

If we really want to save the manatee, I say we treat them like bison. Set up grazing areas and let them eat and breed in peace. We get back the waterways and maybe some delicious milk products.

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Until then, when I’m in Florida I’ll see you outside the inlet — the only place left where a boater can still be free.

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