Palm Beach County taxpayers have spent $4.75 million over the past five years for the state-mandated Manatee Protection Plan, which includes money for law enforcement marine patrols to scour waterways for manatees and menacing boaters.
The county contracts 10 local law enforcement agencies — including Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach and Lantana police — and divvies up $200,000 among the agencies to educate boaters and fine those who violate manatee-protection zones.
However, county departments have been directed to trim budgets, and the effort to protect sea cows may not be sacred.
Manatee season officially ends March 31, the last day that law-enforcement agencies are obligated to continue stepped-up protection for the marine mammals. If the county continues to fund the Manatee Protection Plan next fiscal year, marine units would resume at the start of the new season, Nov. 15.
Elimination of the program could hamper the county's ability to balance human, development and boating interests with manatees' needs, said Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation for Save the Manatee Club.
"Manatees are an endangered species; they're a protected marine animal; they're an icon for Florida. You'd be hard-pressed to find an eco-tourism ad that does not include a manatee," she said. "Manatees equal money for Florida … It's good business for Palm Beach County to have manatees and be seen as a county that values its natural resources."
Last year, county commissioners considered cutting that funding, but resisted.
Despite threats to the program, police departments such as Boca Raton continue to patrol their waters for the endangered sea cows year-round. But they do so less intensely. After this month, Boca Raton police, for instance, will return to one officer on the boat instead of two, and plan to deploy two boats instead of three on weekends.
Boca Raton police have run 14 operations dedicated to manatees this season and often alert boaters to the vulnerable animals and their whereabouts via the radio, Officer Bob Alma said. Officers visit boat ramps, offer pamphlets to boaters before they launch and stop those who do not follow the minimum wake rules in protection zones.
People generally are curious about the animals, Alma says: "There's not a day that goes by when people don't ask me, 'Is there a manatee out there?'"
From November 2007 to March 2010, law enforcement has put in about 5,000 hours of additional protection for manatees, said Alessandra Medri, the county's senior environmental analyst.
"These are hours officers have put ... above and beyond regular duty," she said.
The only other counties that offer extra law enforcement efforts for manatees are Lee, Volusia and Broward counties.
According to a January 2011 aerial survey, there are an estimated 4,840 manatees statewide. The waters of Palm Beach County serve as an important travel corridor in manatees' migratory path and as a food source rich in sea grasses, Tripp said.
That, paired with a significant number of transient boaters unfamiliar with the manatee's plight and federal and state rules, and the county's 41,158 registered vessels in 2010, could spell trouble for the official state marine mammal.
In 2010, there were two watercraft-related manatee deaths in the county, Medri said. That's a number that has consistently decreased since 2008, when a record six manatees were killed by boaters, a year after the Manatee Protection Plan was put in place.
The number of manatee mortalities serves as one simple measure to gauge the plan's effectiveness, although county, state and Save the Manatee Club officials all said it was too soon to tell.
"One measure is — what is the mortality? Even though we recognize the animals are mobile," said Paul Davis, the county's environmental manager. "[It's] an imperfect measure, but it's the primary statistic. It's the reason why we're doing all this — to reduce the mortalities in manatees."
However, the downside could be that because manatees are so mobile, an animal hit by a vessel in Martin County, for example, could end up dying in Palm Beach County, he said.
Palm Beach County is one of 13 key counties statewide to implement the Manatee Protection Plan, which typically is reviewed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission every five years, said Mary Duncan, an environmental specialist in FWC's imperiled-species management section.
The county plan also encompasses habitat restoration, the costliest part of the plan, as well as for studies, education and outreach efforts. There was $750,000 budgeted this year for manatee-habitat projects. Three have been completed, one is under construction and another two are in planning stages, Davis said.
"County lines are political boundaries, not biological ones," Duncan said, "You try to implement what you can and monitor it and see how it goes."
FWC reviews aerial survey data, manatee deaths and boater compliance, she said.
"The plan is still fairly new.