Inside the War over Florida's Most Famous Endangered Species
By Craig Pittman
» Now available from the University Press of Florida. Visit book's website.
Intro: Manatees are an icon of Florida's environment, featured on everything from license plates to cheesy knick-knacks. In his new book, "Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida's Most Famous Endangered Species," award-winning St. Petersburg Times reporter Craig Pittman charts the history of manatee protection, starting with the first law passed to protect them in 1893 at the behest of Frederick Morse, Miami's first real estate super-salesman. He also looks at the resistance to those laws, especially an order from Gov. Bob Martinez and the state Cabinet to 13 coastal counties to prepare manatee protection plans with new speed zones and waterfront development regulations. The book, which features characters as diverse as Jacques Cousteau, Gloria Estefan and O.J. Simpson, describes how manatees have been shot, stabbed, crushed and, of course, repeatedly hit by boats. So many carry scars from being run over that that's how scientists tell them apart. In one chapter, Pittman examines the difficulty that wildlife officers face in trying to enforce the laws protecting manatees -- a job that's so difficult, in fact, that in the past three decades, only one person has ever been jailed for killing one.
The Man in the Krispy Kreme Hat
The twenty-two-foot boat pounded across the waves at forty miles per hour, its Mercury outboard motor roaring, the spray flying.
One of the two uniformed officers on board, Lieutenant Tim Kiss of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, flipped on the blue lights
mounted in the bow. His partner, Officer Darrin Riley, turned the wheel to intercept
their targets: two deeply tanned Lee County men who had been spending
this sunny Sunday afternoon racing a pair of Yamaha WaveRunners around
the Caloosahatchee River.
Kiss and Riley were chasing the pair because their watery racetrack took
them through a slow-speed zone where boats are supposed to be completely
settled in the water with a minimum wake. The zone had been set up to protect
manatees from being hit by boats.
Kiss and Riley pulled the WaveRunners over, questioned the men, then gave
each of them a sixty-three-dollar citation. One grumbled that the officers had
ruined his day. The other, also clearly unhappy, wrinkled his brow and asked,
“When does manatee season end?”
Afterward, Kiss said, “That’s about the average attitude for a manatee violation.”
Not every violator met the same fate as the WaveRunner riders. When Kiss
and Riley started their patrol that day, the very first boater they stopped for
speeding was someone they knew well, a Lee County sheriff ’s deputy named
Deputy Erb often helped them patrol for speed zone violators. In fact, just
a few days before, the New York Times, to illustrate a story on manatee protection
issues, had published a photo of Deputy Erb pulling over a boater who had
Now the deputy was off-duty, taking his family out for a spin in his Carolina
Skiff like any other weekend boater. When Kiss and Riley pulled him
over, he was holding a beer in one hand and steering the boat with the other.
He wore a baseball cap decorated with the logo of the Krispy Kreme donut
The deputy insisted he had done nothing wrong. Even though they had
caught Erb red-handed, Kiss and Riley didn’t bother to reach for their ticket
books. After a few minutes of chatting with the deputy, while his family looked
on silently, they let him go—no citation, no warning, no paper record at all. If
a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times hadn’t been along for the ride, no one
would have ever known.
“We’ve caught several deputies,” Kiss said with a shrug. He explained that
the state wildlife officers never give their county counterparts a ticket because
“we don’t want to start a war with them.”
Federal wildlife officers patrolling the Caloosahatchee couldn’t boast of
doing much better. On the weekend before Kiss and Riley’s patrol, a handful
of federal agents took to Lee County’s waterways to watch for speeders. In
two days they charged sixty-one boaters with violating manatee zones, “and
observed many more that we were unable to take enforcement action on,”
said Special Agent Vance Eaddy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
This was hardly how Congress had intended the Marine Mammal Protection
Act to work: selective and often spotty enforcement of little-understood
and extensively disliked regulations.
Yet enforcement of the laws protecting manatees has stumbled almost from
the start. In 1978, just six years after the passage of the MMPA, Marine Mammal
Commission director John Twiss was already complaining to the head of
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that “the service’s enforcement efforts are
inadequate for protecting this seriously endangered species from human activities
which apparently are a major source of mortality.”
As for the state’s rules, the picture looked just as gloomy. A year after Governor
Martinez and his cabinet called for new speed zones to protect manatees,
the men and women in charge of enforcing those zones were finding reasons
not to hand out tickets.
John Burton, a wildlife officer patrolling the St. Johns River, blamed boater
ignorance. He told the Orlando Sentinel that most boaters didn’t even know
that “slow speed” meant five to seven miles per hour.
Immediately after he made that comment, four boats zoomed past him,
violating the slow-speed zone near Hontoon Island. When Burton pulled them
over, one boater asked, “What’s ‘slow speed?’ Five mph? Eight? Fifteen?”
Burton scribbled out warnings—not tickets—for each boater, and sent them
on their way.
“Some people don’t even know what a channel marker is,” Burton said afterward,
“so how are they going to understand these signs?”
While the state and federal officers who were supposed to enforce manatee protection laws did a spotty job of handing out tickets, they did an even poorer job of tracking down a manatee’s killers. Every now and then, they had a witness to the crime. But generally they had no crime scene, no fingerprints, no DNA, no clues to point to the identity of the boater responsible.
In the thirty years after the passage of the Endangered Species Act
and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, federal officials could point to just
And they would not have made that case if a boat captain had not been
Through the first half of the twentieth century, some of the villages that dot
Florida’s coastline staked their economies on whatever their fishing boats
could haul in.
In the Panhandle there was Destin, which billed itself as “the world’s luckiest
fishing village.” Along the state’s western Gulf Coast, places like Cortez and
Tarpon Springs eked out a living from the sea. On the Atlantic coast there was
Port Salerno, near Fort Pierce.
But waterfront land proved more valuable than any amount of fish, and condos
and subdivisions soon supplanted the working wharves and fish houses.
Where the fishing village motif remained, it was often just a facade for the
tourists, a place to buy varnished seashells, tacky T-shirts, and postcards celebrating
the Gospel of the Sand Dollar.
Still, through the 1980s, Port Salerno clung to its fishing village roots. A
dozen boats might head out each afternoon to spend all night setting nets in
international waters three miles offshore, hauling them in just before sunrise,
and then returning to port to sell their catch. From November to March they
would set gill nets for Spanish mackerel or bluefish. From April to September
they would set drift nets to catch king mackerel. Other fishermen were less
ambitious, working along the coast to catch whatever they could sell to the
local fish houses.
In 1984, the Port Salerno fishing fleet included a boat named the Dragon.
Its captain, Jimmy Malmsten, twenty-seven, was a husky man with a deep tan
and sun-bleached hair. He had grown up in Port Salerno amid abject poverty.
For the Malmstens, getting an education ranked low on the list of priorities. A
minister who had known the family for a decade described Malmsten as having
“a low IQ,” and said he might even be mildly retarded.
But Malmsten had a reputation as a hard worker. The town’s biggest fish
dealer called him “the hardest working fisherman I have working for me.”
Malmsten married a woman named Judy who already had three children.
They soon had a fourth. Through his fishing, he got the family off the state’s
welfare rolls and even provided them with a home.
The Dragon’s crew consisted of three men: Paul Michael Mispel, thirty; Michael
D. Lira, nineteen; and James M. Hughes, thirty. They were rough men,
especially Hughes, who had spent five years in prison for grand theft.
About 11 a.m. on May 16, 1984, two Florida Marine Patrol officers named
Greg Moore and Ken Atkins stopped the Dragon in the St. Lucie River near
Martin Memorial Hospital. The officers wanted to check for fishing violations.
Malmsten had already been caught three times violating the rules on snook
But then the officers noticed a bundle floating about ten feet off the stern.
Drug smugglers fleeing the law sometimes dropped their load in the water,
leading to jokes that fishermen who hauled in floating bales of marijuana had
caught “square grouper.” Could this bundle be a smuggler’s lost booty?
Because they hadn’t found any violations aboard the Dragon, officers Moore and Atkins let Malmsten and his crew go while they retrieved the bundle. What they found inside made them race back and stop the Dragon a second time.
The bundle contained meat. The officers suspected it must be either manatee or turtle. Malmsten said he didn’t know anything about the bundle. He even let the officers search the boat. Moore took a quick look around, then let the Dragon proceed to its destination, the C&W Fish Company in Port Salerno.
When the officers showed the bundle’s contents to some other fishermen,
they learned that the mystery meat was indeed manatee. So the grouper troopers
zoomed over to the C&W fish house and questioned Malmsten again.
This time he refused to talk to them. They searched the Dragon a second
time, this time more thoroughly, and seized two knives as evidence.
The next day, Officer Moore went at Malmsten again, and this time the captain
opened up. According to Moore, during this interview Malmsten admitted
that the bundle was his. He said he had found the manatee already dead and so
he and the crew had butchered it, intending to eat it. No sense wasting the free
However, before questioning Malmsten, Moore had failed to read him the
Miranda warning about his rights, something every investigator is supposed to
do before questioning a suspect. That meant what he said would probably not
be admissible as evidence.
Officers Moore and Atkins suspected the Dragon had actually run over the
manatee and killed it, but they couldn’t prove it. So on May 18, Moore and two
other wildlife officers went to C&W one more time to question Malmsten.
They took him to a park where they could talk to him in relative quiet. This
time they not only read him his rights, they even tape-recorded the interrogation.
Malmsten admitted to butchering the manatee, but once again insisted he
had nothing to do with killing it. Instead, he said the crew had found it floating
in the water, in an area just east of the hospital called the “Hospital Flats.”
The next day, state and federal officers—one of them the gray-bearded Terry English
--seized the Dragon. It was evidence, they said. They took the captain to the Stuart
Police Department for another tape-recorded interview. This time, he told them the
Malmsten said he and his crew had been fishing on the Hospital Flats about
4 a.m. when they ran over a five-foot-long manatee calf. Initially the captain
thought they had hit a log. But then he spotted the calf and its mother, tangled
in their nets. The mother managed to work free of the tangle, but not the
“When I looked, I seen what it was,” Malmsten said later, telling the story in
court. “It was bleeding. . . . It looked to me like it was dead. I heard it was good
eating. I just took a couple chunks out of it.”
English asked him why he didn’t try to get the wounded calf some help.
Malmsten said he was too scared.
Officer Moore charged all four men under state law with killing a manatee,
as well as illegal possession of its carcass. But prosecutors soon dropped the
charges against the teenage Lira. Then Mispel cut a deal where he paid four
hundred dollars to the Save the Manatee Committee (still a quasi-state agency
at that point), and the prosecutor dismissed his charges too.
In July 1984, Malmsten and Hughes pleaded no contest to one charge, illegal
possession of manatee parts, and a judge fined them five hundred dollars.
Headlines about the size of the fines prompted angry phone calls to the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service. As a result, Terry English got the green light to build
a federal case.
“The outcry we heard showed the public is not going to sit back while these
people are out killing an endangered species,” the agent said. He called manatees
“one of the easiest species on earth to kill.” He said his agency received
many reports of manatee deaths, “but proving the charges is another matter.”
In August 1984, federal prosecutors charged Malmsten, Mispel, Lira, and
Hughes with taking a manatee and possessing manatee parts. Each was a
misdemeanor violation of the Endangered Species Act, carrying a maximum
sentence of a year in prison and a fine of thirty thousand dollars. (For some
reason, no one charged them with violating the Marine Mammal Protection
Three of the Dragon’s crew appeared in federal court in Fort Lauderdale for
their arraignment, but not Hughes. The ex-con fled. The magistrate put out a
warrant for his arrest that remains on the books, even though he later went
back to state prison for a variety of violent crimes.
If Hughes had not fled, he might have gotten off even more lightly than he
did before. Just as in state court, prosecutors dropped the charges against Mispel
and Lira. Only Malmsten, the captain, wound up on the hot seat. After all,
he was the one in charge. He was the one on tape. He was the one who admitted
killing the manatee and cutting it up.
Even then, Malmsten’s public defender worked out a deal that would spare
him from jail time. In exchange for a guilty plea to the charge of possessing
manatee meat, he would be fined $750 and put on probation for a year. After all,
his public defender argued, the manatee’s death was an “isolated” incident.
When it came time for a judge to sentence Malmsten on July 31, 1985, though,
the deal fell apart.
U.S. Magistrate Ann Vitunac took note of Malmsten’s three prior snook violations. She
questioned the captain at length about them. It seemed to her that, rather than an isolated violation, Malmsten’s manatee crime fit a pattern of ignoring the laws protecting marine
species. Vitunac rejected the plea bargain and instead sentenced Malmsten to pay the
$750 fine he expected, but also to serve a year in a federal jail, followed by a year
of probation. She suspended half the jail sentence—but that meant he would still spend
six months behind bars.
Upon the conclusion of the sentencing hearing, Malmsten was immediately
taken into custody and shipped off to a federal jail in Miami.
As often happens with a criminal case, the sentence took a toll on the perpetrator’s family. Malmsten’s wife, then twenty-eight, had never worked before, spending all her time taking care of their four children, ages six to thirteen. She found a job in a flower nursery for $3.35 an hour, but that was hardly enough to feed the family.
“My husband being in prison causes a lot of hardship for me and my children,”
Judy Malmsten later wrote to the judge. She said she couldn’t even take
the kids to visit their father because she couldn’t afford gas for her car.
“Other kids make fun of my kids because their dad is in prison,” she wrote.
“So my kids and I are the ones who are really being punished.”
Malmsten’s attorney tried to get Judge Vitunac to reduce the sentence, but
she refused. So the captain served his six months, and when he got out he
paid off his fine by sending in sixty-five dollars a month from what he earned
The Miami Herald’s editorial page praised Vitunac for taking such a hard
line against Malmsten.
“There is no point to any law unless it is taken seriously,” the Herald’s editorial
board wrote. “Scientists believe that there are only 1,000 manatees left in
Florida. . . . No excuse can be a good excuse for killing off the last few remnants
of Florida’s wildlife heritage. By demanding a jail sentence for Jimmy Malmsten,
Judge Vitunac rightly sent that clear message.”
However, bringing that message home would require jailing more than one
poor fisherman who had foolishly kept the meat from an endangered species
he had accidentally killed. It would require the jailing of dozens of boaters
for zooming through manatee zones and slaughtering sea cows—and that just
wasn’t going to happen.