By Dr. Becker
As of January 2014, there were fewer than 5,000 manatees left in the U.S.1 The animals, sometimes known as “sea cows” because of their herbivorous diet and gentle nature, have been considered an endangered species since the 1960s, when only several hundred manatees remained.
In early March 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed the West Indian manatee (also known as the Florida manatee) be downlisted from endangered to threatened status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Unfortunately, this news may not be as good as it sounds.
Are Florida Manatees Making a Comeback?
The proposed reclassification should be a sign that manatee populations are beginning to recover from years of significant threats including habitat loss, collisions with watercraft, entanglement in fishing lines and crab traps, ingestion of fish hooks and litter and becoming trapped or crushed in canal locks and flood control structures.
According to the ESA, an “endangered” species is one that is currently in danger of extinction while a “threatened” species is one that is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.
Michael Oetker, deputy regional director for the wildlife service, explained, “Based on the best available scientific information, we believe the manatee is no longer in danger of extinction.”2
There are estimated to be at least 13,000 manatees with more than 6,300 in Florida. According to USFWS, over the last 25 years there’s been a 500 percent increase in the species in Florida.3
This is great news if it’s accurate (see below) and, according to USFWS, downlisting the manatee to threatened will notaffect federal protections currently afforded to the species by the ESA. According to USFWS:4
“These measures by the Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, other state and federal agencies, and industries resulted in the establishment of over 50 manatee protection areas and have played a key role in reversing the species’ decline.
Retrofitted water control structures have resulted in significant decreases in manatee fatalities, and power companies are working cooperatively with federal and state conservation managers to address warm water outflows at wintering manatee congregation sites.”
Boaters Instrumental in Downgrading Manatees’ Endangered Status
So what’s the bad news about manatees being removed from the endangered species list? The USFWS status review came after a petition from Save Crystal River Inc., which represents about 100 recreational boaters, tour operators and dive shop and hotel owners, asked for the manatees to be reclassified.
The animals like to congregate in the river, which is warmed by natural springs. The USFWS has designated the entire river a manatee refuge, imposes speed restrictions on powerboats, and during the winter months, it sets aside special manatee sanctuaries where boats are prohibited.
If the manatees are no longer listed as endangered, they’re on their way to receiving less protections, which means the residents will have more use of the river but likely at the manatees’ expense.
In an op-ed, Katie Tripp, Ph.D., director of science & conservation, Save the Manatee Club, explained that manatees are very much at risk from recreational boaters and industry:5
“The Service says protections for manatees won't change with downlisting. That's not comforting since some big changes ARE needed to get the manatees' habitat secured for the future.
Unfortunately, the agencies will be lucky if they can manage to hang on to existing protections in the years to come. The Tampa Tribune reported one manatee foe's beliefs: "there is no longer a need for widespread boating restrictions" or "sanctuaries in which vessels are prohibited ..."
Another group's website states that downlisting, "may also prevent additional unnecessary regulations and reduce the need for some existing ones ..."
The latest anti-manatee tactic is to paint them as destroyers of the environment, making statements including, "If we can't do anything to manage the size and location of the herd, we are doomed to sit back and hope the manatee does not over pressure the SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation) to the point it cannot sustain..."
These same folks are trying to get legislation sponsored in Tallahassee that would destroy the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act and are lobbying for rules to allow the legal take (read: killing) of manatees.”
Manatee Populations Are Declining or of Unknown Status in 84 Percent of Their Habitat Range
The non-profit organization Save the Manatee Club is strongly against the USFWS’ proposal to reclassify the West Indian manatee form endangered to threatened. They stated the proposal is premature and explained:6
“It is completely unclear why FWS feels justified in downlisting the entire species since the agency's own 12-month finding cites that "population trends are declining or unknown in 84 percent of the countries where manatees are found."
… The FWS decision for Florida is largely based on a computer model that does not include two recent, massive die-offs of hundreds of manatees. The manatee population suffered catastrophic losses from prolonged cold snaps and toxic red tide blooms from 2010 through 2013.
The computer model also does not deal with loss of habitat due to waterfront development. In addition, there is no long-term plan for the anticipated loss of artificial winter warm water habitat on which more than 60% of the Florida manatee population depends.”
Do You Want to Help Save Florida Manatees?
The USFWS manatee downlisting proposal is in the midst of a 90-day public comment period, which ends April 7, 2016. I have already submitted my comments and signed the petition, I’m urging you to do the same. You can voice your opinion about the proposal electronically via the Federal eRulemaking Portal. The Save the Manatee Club even has sample comments you can use to support your opinion.
In addition, you can help by signing a petition urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to postpone downlisting until threats to the species and its habitat are firmly under control.