The US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it is pursuing a status downgrade for the Florida manatee from endangered to threatened. This still provides manatees legal protection in the United States from habitat loss and other threats, but the protection will be less than previously given under the endangered status. “We believe the manatee is no longer in danger of extinction,” stated U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deputy regional director Michael Oetker during the conference Thursday. This would not supersede any of the laws protecting the Florida manatee under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Almost 50 years ago, the Florida manatee was put on the first federal list of endangered species. The number of manatees have improved over the years and continue to rise. The agency’s manatee coordinator, Jim Valade stated, “It’s like taking manatees out of intensive care and putting them in a regular care facility”.
Manatee populations have had their ups and downs. Up from the 1,000 animals in the 1970’s, the current estimate is 6,300 based on last year’s aerial counts. Over the years the population size has been reduced by boat strikes and mass mortality events resulting from red tides and cold stress. A total of 2,400 manatees died between 2010 and 2013. Nearly 100 manatees die each year from trauma associated with boat strikes. Mass mortality events have become progressively worse. There were 429 manatees that died in 2009, 766 that died in 2010, and a record breaking 829 manatees died in 2013. It is interesting to note that when manatees were originally listed as endangered, Craig Phillips (an expert in the field and first curator of the Miami Seaquarium) warned the committee to add manatees to the endangered lists based on the threats (loss of habitat and speeding boats) that they face and not based on their numbers. Those same threats have not changed.
The status downgrade comes after an eight year saga that began when US Fish and Wildlife Services released a report concluding that manatees could be downgraded from endangered to threatened. The Pacific Legal Foundation, acting on behalf of Citrus County, petitioned the agency in 2012 to make the downgrade official. The agency blamed the postponing on budget cuts resulting in a lawsuit against the agency in 2014 when the Pacific Legal Foundation had little response from US Fish and Wildlife Services. “Their goal was not to end existing regulations, but to prevent adoption of some proposals that were excessive and not in line with the improvements the species has seen” stated the Foundations attorney Christina Martin.
The decision to downgrade the protective status of the Florida manatee was largely based on computer models. However, there are oversights that the computer models failed to account for. The models did not account for waterfront development, the recent mass mortality events, and other threats that the species faces. United States Senator Bill Nelson objected to the status change stating that he urged the agency to withdraw its misguided and premature proposal immediately and help save this treasured species.
Officials said that the status change would have not effect on boat speed limits and refuge boundaries that are already in place. Some like Pat Rose, the director of Save The Manatees Club, don’t buy this statement.”I know how much pressure they’re going to be under to make changes” in the regulations. This will facilitate a rollback in protections and produce a higher level of manatee mortality, said Pat Rose, manatee biologist and director of Save The Manatees Club organization. ”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be accepting comments on the proposed change in manatee status for 90 days beginning Friday culminating in a public hearing on Feb. 20 in Orlando. The final decision may not occur until 2017. For more information click on: http://www.fws.gov/news/ShowNews.cfm?ref=u.s.-fish-and-wildlife-service-to-reclassify-west-indian-manatee-from-&_ID=35428
For information on FAQs and public comment submission See – http://www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/mammal/manatee/pdf/manatee-frequently-asked-questions.pdf