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Battle for the manatees begins with education

Sometimes it seems like he's fighting a losing battle. But the manatees are the real losers.

Still, Dr. Jesse White keeps on fighting to save the manatees. White says he doesn't consider himself a rebel. His weapon of choice is education.

This weekend he'll be at it again, answering questions and presenting informational programs at a booth at the Florida Manatee Festival in Crystal River.

It's the children White says he thinks education can help the most. "The adults I give up on," White says. "The majority are really apathetic. We need to get to the children."

White, 57, still considers himself a marine mammal veterinarian although he spends most of his time educating the public and not much practicing veterinary medicine.

Now director of the Florida Manatee Research and Education Foundation, White's advocacy work started in 1969 when he helped save an injured manatee from a storm drain.

That rescue led to manatee research and eventually a captive breeding program, which has been officially halted by the federal government.

Government action is not one of White's favorite topics. "Our awareness has increased, but the laws have not gotten better and enforcement of the existing laws has been cut back," White says.

"New boating laws are getting too much pressure from boat company lobbyists. The politicians are backing down," he says.

But more than politicians, White says the biggest danger facing manatees today is the destruction of their natural environment.

"Man and manatees can exist together, but there needs to be new legislation to form a natural buffer for nature. We can have both," White says.

A recent aerial survey turned up more manatees in the state than researchers thought existed.

But, White says it's nothing to get excited about. "There was clearer water, more coverage and less wind," he says.

"They just didn't get to see the animals last year that they saw this year. So many animals are in remote areas that it's hard to find them all."

White says the count is just an estimate and a more scientific approach would take 10 years and $10-billion. "You would have to first divide the state into grids, then trap, tag and release them."

White has been featured in national magazines and television shows including ABC's 20/20.

He recently took part in the filming of a Japanese documentary on water mammals and a Japanese game show at the foundation.

Georgia and Fort Myers public television stations also have filmed White and the manatees recently.