Category Archives: Environmental Law and Science

What’s right and what’s wrong about policies to protect the environment. A particularly poignant topic given the oil spill money that’s going to pour into the Gulf — much of it targeted for environmental restoration.

Biggest Manatee Count Yet

[This was originally posted in 2017. Manatees are no longer “endangered,” but remain listed as “threatened.” Management of the critter remains mired in 1990s theories — which were wrong then, and even more wrong now. We’re working on new data analysis tools to help foment new thinking about waterways management.]

Bob Atkins of Citizens For Florida’s Waterways and I had queried the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), about this year’s manatee count just this past weekend. The results were released today. 

It’s the first time we’ve ever gotten turnaround THIS fast!

Another record “minimum population” count — 6,620*. Yet, manatees remain on the endangered list, with the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), violating yet another court order to update its official classification. WHY?

We are now firmly in the world of the surreal. The FWC press release doesn’t say “record number counted”. They are simply “encouraged” by the count.

Manatees have more than doubled in 15 years and
have more than tripled in 30 years.

By comparison, Florida black bears number 4350, and are no longer on the FWC imperiled list AT ALL. http://www.tampabay.com/…/florida-black-bear-popula…/2270659

In support of removing bears from its list, FWC noted the bear population has grown 60% in the past 14 years. They allowed bear hunting in order to reduce the rate of growth! Curious minds will note than 60% over 14 years is less than 100% over 10 years. A lot less, in fact, although still quite robust.

Also by comparison, there are 1800 giant pandas. They are now OFF the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) endangered list, and are considered “vulnerable”, akin to our “species of special concern’ in Florida.
http://www.worldwildlife.org/…/giant-panda-no-longer-endang…

WWF says the panda population has increased 17% in the past decade. Curious minds note again…. 17% over a decade is barely one-tenth the rate of growth of our Florida manatees.

It took 14 years for wildlife managers at FWS and FWC
to act on their recommendations to reclassify manatees
as “threatened” from endangered. 

We have been waiting since 2003, when FWC first recommended reclassification, and since 2007, whenFWS did the same — for….. nothing. Seriously, what is WRONG with these people? WWII began, was fought, and won by us in LESS TIME than it’s taken FWS to fulfill its own recommendation.

Years ago, before the Manatee Forum started, Ken Haddad of FWC and Sam Hamilton at FWS, came up to me — and, I suspect, others — and asked, “If we update all the studies you think are not accurate, what will you do if the science says that boats are an extinction threat?”

I responded, “We will find a solution. We will follow where sound science leads.” We have kept that pledge.

Dammit, I should have demanded they agree to do the same!!

Sam, a good guy who ran the Southeast Regional FWS office, died at a young age a few years back. Ken, also a good guy who headed FWC, retired a couple years ago — in part because he was disgusted with the political interference over this very manatee issue.

This is just plain ridiculous. This is an all-too-perfect example of why we are fed up with government.

_______
* Applying recently developed peer-reviewed abundance calculations to this “minimum count” is a bit of a stretch, but just a little bit. I estimate there are at least 8,000 manatees in Florida and likely close to 10,000. But, whether it’s 6620, 8000, or 10,000, there has never been this many in the state. Never. In some places, it’s accepted there are likely too many, drawn to places they shouldn’t be, such as warm water discharges at power plants, by good-intentioned but wrong-headed regulations. No one in the regulatory world ever imagined there could be this many manatees in Florida.

Pinellas County Manatee Rule

Pinellas County is on Tampa Bay, Florida. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is proposing a bunch of new manatee speed zones in Pinellas, with the goal of reducing the number of manatees struck and killed by boats. This concern first emerged in 2007. It took seven years for FWC staff even to distribute a set of draft rules. Seven years. Without spoiling the outcome (OK, we’re opposed to the new zones), readers need to realize that all this effort, put toward something that just plain is not needed, is due to one big problem: the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act were written decades ago, and are oftentimes — thisentimes — detrimental, even downright dangerous.

The Fish & Wildlife Commission has almost unlimited power to regulate boats. And because its power is unlimited, it is always fearful of being sued for not doing enough. (Yes, I even have that in writing from them!) In this case, the Federal Fish & Wildlife Service issued “comments” to the Army Corps, which issues permits for marina and dock construction. Based on the negative comments (in 2007), the Corps denied the permits. The comments kicked the ball downstairs to FWC to do something about it. So FWC — after seven years — is proposing more speed zones.

The trouble is — a lot has changed in seven years.

This piece was written on behalf of Citizens For Florida’s Waterways, a boating group whose membership includes a bunch of bonafide Cape Kennedy rocket scientists.

CFFW has repeatedly stated, where sound sciences leads, it will follow. The following four objections are firmly grounded in science:

1)       The original reason given to support the need for more zones in Pinellas County has been disproven.

A 2007 Biological Opinion from the Fish & Wildlife Service, which led to Army Corps denial of several Pinellas County permits applications, concluded that since the manatee population in Southwest Florida appeared to be declining, adding more boat slips in Pinellas would adversely impact the manatee. FWS’ Dave Hankla opined that until more speed zones were added, permits would not be issued.

That was seven and a half years ago.

Nothing was done until last year, 2014, when FWC staff advised Pinellas County to form a Local Rule Review Committee to consider more zones.

But, before the Commission convened the local rule review committee, new information released by FWS and the US Geological Survey showed that the Southwest manatee stock is NOT in decline. It’s growing rapidly. Indeed, manatees are growing rapidly in all four Florida stocks, and are being seen much more frequently beyond Florida, too.

The 2013 Runge, et. al. findings project a zero possibility of manatee extinction in 100 years, and show that boat mortality is – these are our words – so insignificant a threat that they are a distraction from what we should be doing to ensure a healthy and sustainable manatee population.

CFFW asked the US Geological Survey author, at a Manatee Forum meeting, if the improvements were because of better protection. He said, NO. It’s because of better data and methods, not better protection. Moreover, he said that if the current methods and data had been available in 2007, the results would have been positive back then, too.

Following the release of this new and better information, the appropriate conclusion should have been for FWS to issue a new Biological Opinion finding there would be no “adverse affect”. FWC’s plan to create more speed zones is an unnecessary and inappropriate action, given the new data showing the Southwest population is not in decline.

2)       FWC data is based on a flawed approach that ignores and violates the long-established Law of Large Numbers, a fundamental principle for research. In simple terms, FWC’s data plays fast and loose with statistics, using small numbers to generate dire-sounding percentage-based findings.

Jacob Bernoulli first described the LLN as so simple that even the stupidest man instinctively knows it is true (Ars Conjectandi: Usum & Applicationem Praecedentis Doctrinae in Civilibus, Moralibus & Oeconomicis, 1713, Chapter 4).

FWC attempted to show that watercraft mortality in Pinellas County – more specifically, Western Pinellas County – is rising at a faster rate than in other counties. However, the sample size – a handful of manatee mortalities – is so small that no trend can be established, and no comparison to other, larger, samples, can be made. FWC has not established a viable reason to implement more zones.

Science strongly cautions against the use of rates and percentages based on small numbers. The National Center for Health Statistics advises against the use of statistics based on a numerator of less than 20, which is consistent with standard CDC (Centers for Disease Control) practice. Moreover, it’s recommended that rates (percentages) be suppressed when using small numbers, to avoid the kind of statistical inflation that happens when a number increases from 1 to 2 (that’s 100%!). A good review of these issues is available for the Washington State Department of Health and from CDC.

FWC ‘s report authors never heard about the LLN, or ignored it.

3)       There is no good evidence to suggest more zones will be effective in reducing watercraft mortality, nor any evidence to support the premise that a reduction in watercraft is needed.

When speed zones are proposed, the result has always been the addition of new zones. As manatee population continues to grow (doubling every 12 years), more and more zones follow. Several years ago, CFFW, working with then-Executive Director Ken Haddad, asked FWC staff to develop a “black box” that would help inform decisions on where zones should be located – where they are most likely to have a positive effect. The result was the “fast overlap” maps used in Pinellas and elsewhere. (When this method was used to review changes in zones proposed by CFFW in 2004, and supported by a Brevard County resolution that was co-authored by CFFW and the manatee club, this rather primitive tool clearly showed that several Brevard zones were unnecessary; nonetheless, the zones remain in place.)

Haddad was dissatisfied with this new tool, as were we, given that it uses agglomerated data that seeks to put manatees and “fast boats” in proximity, but ignores both time and water depth. That is to say, the boat may have been in the area at 5AM, and the manatee at 6PM, yet the “dots” coincide. The manatee may be in deep water (and thus able, according to peer-reviewed studies, to dive safely beneath recreational watercraft), but the charts are only two-dimensional, ignoring depth.

We have recommended improvements to the model several times, but without success. The existing situation is that we have no goal for the new zones, other than a hope that more zones will somehow reduce watercraft-related mortality.

Moreover, the very process of selecting zones is at best part scientific, and part political. There is give and take.

In its review, the local rule review committee voted against some zones in channels. FWC staff’s proposal includes those zones in channels, including another half mile of the intracoastal.

Because FWC has not developed a reasonable tool for determining zone placement, and has not developed a means to evaluate the effectiveness of its zones, we are left with a question: what possible evidence is there that the proposed zones will reduce watercraft mortality? And, if the LRRC recommendation was allowed to stand – no zones in channels – how would that change the effectiveness of the zones? We don’t know, because FWC does not have the ability to tell us, other than to opine that more zones is always better (which, in itself, is often not true).

FWC and FWS admit they do not know if speed zones work, or what zones are most likely to reduce mortality. But, even if zones do work, what’s being demanded here in Pinellas County will reduce watercraft mortality by one per year at the most.

One.

At a minimum, FWC staff should abide by the LRRC determinations and not add more zones than the LRRC supported.

4)        Even if the Commission establishes more zones, there is no guarantee that any of the denied permits – or future permit applications – will be approved. CFFW has asked for that assurance, in writing. It has not been forthcoming.

In discussions with FWS, the issue seems to be that a “carte blanche” letter of support could open the gates for other applications that may not be advisable. This avoids the core issue: FWS should provide a letter listing those permits that will be released if the rule is approved; a list of those that may be approved; and a list of those that will not.

 

Summary

 

In conclusion: the original justification for these zones is disproven. We don’t know that these zones will be effective. Even if the potential decrease in mortality is achieved (one fewer death per year), the net benefit will have no effect on a manatee population that is doubling every 12 years already! And we have no assurance that permits will be released.

FWC should advise FWS that no additional zones are necessary, and that permits withheld now for more than seven years – seven years – should be released.

Deepwater Horizon Bust or Boom?

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf in 2010 was a shocking disaster resulting in a tragic loss of lives.

But, if there had been no deaths, it would be easier for us to look at the oil spill another way: It could be a bonanza for people along the Gulf struggling through a sour economy. Or, it could be a bust, a repeat of the stimulus fiasco.

In the immediate aftermath of the oil spill, thousands of people — many of them already laid off in the Great Recession — were put to work in one of the biggest public works projects since the Great Depression, setting boom, skimming oil, cleaning beaches.

kenafcrew-150x150
MW Consulting’s crew demonstrated boom made from natural, oil-absorbing kenaf.

Everyone living along the Gulf Coast knew someone — or were themselves — involved in the clean-up. MW Consulting was itself involved. We convinced Florida’s DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) to put out a call to inventors and builders to demonstrate restoration products. More than twenty groups from around the world participated, on an oil-soaked stretch of Pensacola Beach, FL.

Most of the people who worked in the clean-up, especially those involved in the “Vessels of Opportunity” program — privately owned boats hired by BP (British Petroleum) for inshore and offshore work — loved the money but were disdainful of the actual work.

Repeatedly, “it’s being done for the cameras” was heard. Members of land crews also raised issues, the most common being that oil wasn’t being removed from shores and beaches: it was being buried.

Despite the negativity, most everyone was grateful for the work — and the money. No one knows for sure how much was spent, but it was in the billions.

Now: round 2. The money from fines that will flow into the Gulf States will be at least $5 billion, and perhaps as much as $20 billion. In addition to fines, there will be lawsuit money, someday. Even at the low end ($5 billion), that works out to about $25 per gallon in fines for each gallon spilt (about 5 million barrels, or 200 million gallons).

In short, a lot of money, with 80% of it going to the affected states (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida).

In Florida, every Gulf Coast county is guaranteed some part of what the state receives.

What will they spend it on? MW Consulting is working with various counties on their project lists, which then go into a state consortium plan, which then goes to a Federal council. As there is no deadline to spend it all — and no real timeline on when the greenbacks will start flowing — this will be a story for years to come.

What we hope is that this opportunity isn’t botched the way the stimulus program was. We had predicted from the start of stimulus that governments were not capable of efficiently spending vast sums of money quickly, and indeed they were not. The Inspector General for Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, which last year assumed control of the state’s foundering Energy Office, has just concluded exactly that (click here to link to a press release and copy of their audit).

A related question is whether or not the oil well has actually been contained. Reports of significant seepage and still-uncollected spillage continue.

Our goal is to help our clients manage their way through what will be a challenging process, resulting in projects that create and retain jobs, and that are worth doing. We will do our part to ensure the goals are met!