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Wandering Florida

Wandering Florida - Right and Wrong on the Waters of Florida
By Joe Murphy
Dec 20, 2007 - 3:55:42 AM

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I had the occasion recently to hear Carl Hiaasen speak over on the east coast of Florida.  He, as usual, was funny and inspiring and he spoke about the absurdities and beauty that are all things ­Florida.  One thing he said stuck with me and I am reminded of it this week as I consider the plight of manatees in Florida.

A few years ago my wife and I took our niece canoeing on the Weeki Wachee River in Florida’s Nature Coast. We spent an incredible day floating along the river, paddling over crystal clear waters.  We saw alligators, otters, and all types of birds. My niece was enthralled with the nature and the wildlife, and was full of questions.  Her pure and undiluted joy in seeing all things wild was inspiring and contagious. It did our old hearts good to be reminded of the wonder and magic all around us.

As we paddled back towards the boat launch we came upon a manatee with a calf that was feeding in the shallows. My niece had never seen such a creature, and it was almost as large as our canoe!  She was awed by the gentle giant and her calf as they swam, ate, and floated near us. Eventually she noticed the crisscrossed and deep scars along the back of the mother manatee. They were an ugly and violent reminder that manatees in Florida face ever present danger from boat propellers. Eventually my irrepressible niece grew quiet and pensive.

I would have given anything that day to have had the lobbyists for the marine industry, the dock builders, the coastal developers, and their apologists and hired hacks out there on the water with us to answer my niece’s questions about why that manatee was so horribly scarred and disfigured. All those who argue that manatees are not imperiled in Florida, all those who argue that a human’s right to go faster in their boat or to build yet another water front condo with yet another dock is more important than the very survival of manatees as a species should have had to explain to my niece what those scars meant.

When I heard Carl Hiaasen speak recently he talked about the intrinsic ability of children to understand the difference between right and wrong.  It was part of his inspiration for the book and movie Hoot.  Kids, when presented with a fair summary of the facts, understand that it is wrong to destroy burrowing owls for more strip malls, and wrong to bury gopher tortoises alive for more subdivisions. Somewhere along the way adults learn to ration­alize and justify. As I get older I more strongly believe that kids have this right.

Floridians should be thankful that recently the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC) voted to not downlist or weaken protections for manatees.  Governor Crist has proven to be a vocal and effective advocate for manatees, and Floridians should thank him for his leadership on this issue.  A strong coalition of conservation groups led by organizations like Save The Manatee, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Audubon of Florida, and Ocean Conservancy have fought long and hard to protect manatees. The Gulf Restoration Network is proud to be working with groups like them to protect the wildlife of Florida’s Gulf Coast.

I think that decisions need to be made with the best available ­science, and that wildlife management is a complicated and challenging endeavor. I believe that the FFWCC Commissioners and the Governor really listened to the thousands of Floridians who  contacted them ­urging them to not weaken ­protections for manatees. 

With all that said at the end of the day each one of as Floridians will have to look into our own hearts and ask ourselves whether a species’ ­survival is more or less important than the recreational pursuits of ­humans. I know how my niece would answer that question. 

Joe Murphy is the Florida Program Coordinator for the Gulf Restoration Network. Learn more about the Gulf Restoration Network by visiting

© Copyright 2008 by The Observer News Publications and M&M Printing Company, Inc.

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