By Dr. Becker
The manatee, sometimes called a sea cow, is actually an aquatic relative of the elephant. This big fellow is a gray-brown color and has thick, wrinkled skin that tends to collect algae. Manatees use their front flippers to steer or crawl through shallow water. Their tails are flat and quite powerful.
Manatees are known for their gentle, slow-moving nature. They spend a great deal of time resting and feeding.
Florida manatees have been an endangered species since 1967, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is currently reviewing their status for a possible downgrade to threatened, which provides for fewer protections under the law. The review process was open for public comment for three months, from July 2 to September 2.1 It could take a year or more for a final decision to be reached.
Why the Manatee Conservation Status Is Under Review
Save Crystal River Inc., with help from the Pacific Legal Foundation, petitioned the USFWS in 2012 to reclassify the manatee, citing a 2007 federal review that recommended listing the species as threatened since the population is recovering. In 1967, there were only a few hundred manatees in Florida, but the population has grown to over 4,800 as of this year.
Crystal River is a small community on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Especially during the colder months of the year when water temperatures drop in the Atlantic and Gulf, hundreds of manatees find their way to the river, which is warmed by natural springs.
Over the years, the USFWS has designated the entire river a manatee refuge. The agency imposes speed restrictions on powerboats, and during the winter months, it sets aside special manatee sanctuaries where boats are prohibited.
None of this sits well with many members of the Crystal River community. Steve Lamb, vice president of Save Crystal River, which represents a group of about 100 recreational boaters, tour operators, and dive shop and hotel owners, says he and other residents are concerned that if manatees remain classified as endangered, the USFWS will impose even more restrictions on how they're able to use the river.
"For 30 years, I've watched them take one bite at a time out of our community, whether that's rules, regulations, whatever it is," says Lamb. "We decided enough was enough."
The Argument for Maintaining the Manatee on the Endangered List
According to USFWS, they actually began working on the manatee reclassification proposal in 2013, but put the review on hold due to funding constraints, the U.S. government shutdown, and concerns over recent substantial increases in manatee deaths.
According to Save the Manatees Club, 2,441 manatees died from 2010 through 2013, which is nearly half the highest minimum population count ever recorded.2
A record 829 manatees died in 2013, breaking the 2010 record of 766.3 Many of the deaths last year occurred during periods of cold weather. Other causes were a toxic red tide bloom in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 276 manatees. Another 100 animals were lost on Florida’s east coast, where water pollution and algae blooms have become a major problem in a vital lagoon ecosystem.
Animal conservationists oppose any move to change the manatee's status. Pat Rose of Save the Manatees Club points out that while the species has rebounded, the spike in deaths, especially during cold snaps, means more work is needed before they lose endangered status.
Threats Against Florida’s Manatees
According to Save the Manatees Club:
“Manatees continue to face danger from every direction, including speeding boats, pollution, disease, entrapment, coastal development, cold stress and the decline in spring flows and surface waters. The concerns are many. Prematurely removing manatees from the endangered-species list would put them and their aquatic ecosystems at even greater risk.”
And in Crystal River there’s an additional threat – “swim with the manatees” tours. There are about 70 companies in the area offering these “adventures,” which draw several hundred thousand visitors each year.
It’s against the law to touch or otherwise interfere with manatees, but the law isn’t consistently enforced in Crystal River. Conservationists worry that having humans in the water with manatees disturbs them at a time of year when they need to feed and rest.
According to river guide Matt Clemons and others, stricter enforcement and more sanctuaries are needed to protect manatees from too much public attention.4 Of course, that would mean more rules and closer supervision by USFWS, which is exactly what the Save Crystal River group is fighting against.
For more information on the Crystal River manatees: The Last Spring: Protecting Florida's Manatees