U.S. wildlife officials propose reclassifying manatees’ endangered status

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Snorkelers interact with a Florida Manatee in Crystal River, Florida, on Jan. 15, 2015. On winter days, Florida manatees flock by the hundreds to the balmy waters of Florida, drawing crowds of snorkelers and kayakers to the U.S. sanctuary, where people may swim with the endangered species. Photo by Scott Audette/Reuters

Snorkelers interact with a Florida Manatee in Crystal River, Florida, on Jan. 15, 2015. On winter days, Florida manatees flock by the hundreds to the balmy waters of Florida, drawing crowds of snorkelers and kayakers to the U.S. sanctuary, where people may swim with the endangered species. Photo by Scott Audette/Reuters

Federal wildlife officials announced Thursday that the West Indian manatee, which once drifted close to extinction, will be reclassified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

“We believe the manatee is no longer in danger of extinction,” said Michael Edgar, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s deputy regional director at a news conference in Miami.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the populations of these slow, aquatic mammals have recovered enough to be downlisted from its current “endangered” status to “threatened.”

The wildlife service’s Chuck Underwood told the NewsHour that current data showed that manatees are no longer in “extensive care.” But, if the proposal is finalized, he added, it doesn’t mean the agency will roll back conservation measures currently in place to protect the manatees because the data also showed that these methods are working.

The West Indian manatee can be found in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea waters until aquatic temperatures drop for the winter. They then make their way to Florida seeking warmer waters. Seeking shelter from cold waters, though, have put manatees in the path of boating traffic, another major cause of death.

Citing a 2007 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that suggested changing the endangered status of the manatee, the Pacific Legal Foundation petitioned the government in 2012 for the downlisting. The foundation, a libertarian law firm in Florida, represents a local boating and waterfront group who thinks manatee protections threaten the fishing and touring industry in Kings Bay, which is also a popular hangout spot for manatees during the winter.

In 2014, the foundation sued the agency.

With Thursday’s announcement, a spokeswoman for the foundation said federal officials “took so long to accept the good news about the manatee’s improvement.”

“It has taken eight years and two lawsuits to get federal officials to follow up on their own experts’ recommendation to reclassify the manatee,” said Christina Martin, an attorney for the foundation, in a statement.

Initial aerial surveys in 1991 estimated the manatee population to be at 1,267, and since then, according to the wildlife service, there have been steady population gains with an estimated more than 6,300 manatees now in Florida. Worldwide, there are at least 13,000 manatees floating along.

Manatees gather near the outlet where Florida Power & Light Company pipes warm the water, at an inactive power plant undergoing renovation works in Riviera Beach, Florida, Jan. 7, 2010. With 61 degrees Fahrenheit being the minimum temperature that a manatee needs to survive, FPL is helping prevent deaths by turning on the heaters at the plant for the manatees. Photo Carlos Barria/Reuters

Manatees gather near the outlet where Florida Power & Light Company pipes warm the water, at an inactive power plant undergoing renovation works in Riviera Beach, Florida, Jan. 7, 2010. With 61 degrees Fahrenheit being the minimum temperature that a manatee needs to survive, FPL is helping prevent deaths by turning on the heaters at the plant for the manatees. Photo Carlos Barria/Reuters

Manatee advocates, however, condemned the decision to downlist the mammal’s status. Jaclyn Lopez of the Center for Biological Diversity told the Associated Press that the wildlife service needed a “proven, viable plan for further reducing reducing boat strike mortality and for preserving vital warm water habitat.”

Adovcates argued that threats to manatees extend beyond cold snaps and boat impacts and getting ensnarled in fishing gear. In 2013, a toxic algae bloom killed more than 800 manatees in Florida, the most for any year on record. And although Floridians and tourists have been known to swim with the docile animals in the state’s springs, regulators want the wildlife service to consider new restrictions that limit the interaction between humans and manatees.

“It’s kind of a madhouse,” Kimberly Sykes, assistant manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, told Reuters. “People are just bumping into manatees, because they can’t see them.”

A manatee is seen nearby an inactive power plant in Riviera Beach, Florida, Jan. 7, 2010. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

A manatee is seen nearby an inactive power plant in Riviera Beach, Florida, Jan. 7, 2010. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

The West Indian manatee was first listed as an endangered species in 1967, under the Endangered Species Preservation Act. Before making that decision, federal officials met with manatee expert Craig Phillips, who was the director of the National Aquarium and curator of the Miami Seaquarium, where Thursday’s announcement took place. Then, he advised officials to not base the manatee’s status on their population size.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, Phillips said manatees “may actually be more abundant than is believed at present, due to the fact that it is one of the most difficult of all totally aquatic mammals to observe in the wild.” He said the manatee was endangered because of the continued threats they faced.

Underwood said the wildlife service doesn’t rely heavily on aerial counts. He said they gave the agency an idea of a minimum known population at a given time. Instead, he said, the wildlife service focuses on adult survival rates and how secure resources, such as warm water habitats are.

Even though there’s an increasing impact of algae blooms on manatees, overall, the data still shows the mammals are not in danger of going extinct, he said.

The U.S. Geological Survey also released an analysis in 2007, concluding that boat impact deaths beat cold water as the greatest threat to manatees.

“Reduction of this single threat would greatly reduce the probability of the [Florida manatee] population reaching the point of no probable return,” said Michael Runge, lead author and research ecologist at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

There will be a 90-day comment period for the wildlife service’s proposal. Federal wildlife officials will then have a year to make a final decision on whether to reclassify the manatee’s status.

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