In the next several weeks, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to make public its final decision on whether to “downlist” the manatee from an endangered to a threatened species — a marker of progress in the species’ recovery.
The agency invited public comment last year after it proposed reclassifying the aquatic creatures, which weigh half a ton and range up to 13 feet long.
Nearly 4,000 people weighed in. One comment captured the appeal of the endearing animal: “The manatee has become a living icon of Florida as much as orange juice, Mickey Mouse and the beaches.”
The government’s decision will come amid signs that the manatee is thriving. For the third straight year, spotters counted more than 6,000 manatees navigating Florida’s waters. But some believe reclassification is premature.
What’s being considered
The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages manatee refuges and sanctuaries, last year proposed reclassifying the West Indian manatee from endangered to threatened — a less serious status. The Florida manatee is a subspecies of West Indian manatee.
The Endangered Species Act defines an endangered species as one currently in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A threatened species is one that is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.
The designation came with federal restrictions on such things as boat speed and waterfront development that are credited with protecting the species and reversing its decline. The agency said it will continue to lead efforts to increase the population and reduce threats.
The arguments for and against
The agency pointed to “significant improvements” in the manatee population and habitat conditions. “The manatee’s recovery is incredibly encouraging and a great testament to the conservation actions of many,” Cindy Dohner, the Southeast regional director for US Fish and Wildlife, said at the time.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission submitted comments in favor of the reclassification.
“One of the things we deal with is … people assume if a species comes off the endangered species list … it is a failure,” said Gil McRae, head of the commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
Part of government’s job, McRae said, is to make conservation improvements that get species reclassified as soon as possible.
His thoughts were echoed by Christina Martin, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has pushed for the manatee’s status change. “There is a limited amount of resources available to protect all the species,” she said, adding officials should “focus on the species most in need of being saved from going extinct.”
The foundation has represented residents who formed the organization Save Crystal River. Martin said Save Crystal River is concerned the federal government “might adopt more and more restrictions that would be harmful to their community.”
Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation for the Save the Manatee Club, agrees the aim is to eventually have the manatee downlisted — but she said there are legitimate concerns about the plan.
“What I work for every day is to get them to the point of recovery. It is not clear to me how we do that when so many manatees are dependent on things we can’t control,” she said.
Tripp singled out coastal power plants.
The state has underscored the importance of a warm-water habitat for manatees in Florida. But Tripp said 60% to 70% of the creatures rely on artificial or man-made sources of heat, specifically outflow from coastal power plants.
Why it matters where manatees congregate
The Save the Manatee Club said it is concerned about the concentration of manatees during the winter outside power plants, particularly in the northern part of the state.
“The manatee management community has no control over the power industry,” Tripp said. “What will we do if one of these power plants goes away?”
Tripp said up to 1,200 animals have gathered outside a single plant. And, she said, during a 2010 cold snap there was higher mortality outside such facilities.
McRae, with the state research institute, said there is no definitive data on such deaths. He contends manatees “will experience cold kills if they cannot find this warm water.”
He agrees it would be ideal for more of the lovable sea cows to gravitate toward natural springs instead of artificial heat sources. “Long term, it is a challenge what to do about that affinity, if in fact any of these plants go offline.”
What happens to protections if the status changes
“Should we decide reclassification is warranted, there would be no changes in protections,” said Chuck Underwood, a public information officer for the US Fish & Wildlife Service office in Jacksonville. “All existing protections remain in place and enforceable and additional protections, if needed, could be implemented. The species would remain protected under both the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.”
McRae said the state would continue its current program. He touts the state’s Save the Manatee Trust Fund. Proceeds from a special manatee license plate contributed to $3.8 million in revenues from the fund in 2015-2016.
“With the long-term support of the Trust Fund, FWC has developed state-of-the-art techniques to monitor manatee abundance, trends in abundance, and threats …” the commission says on its website.
Tripp, with the Save the Manatee Club, said her group is concerned that a downlisting may cause some officials and communities to be less willing to allocate funds for certain manatee protection.
What the public thinks
The federal wildlife agency asked the public to speak up. A government website lists supporting documents and 3,813 comments sent in last year.
A majority appear to oppose the reclassification.
Christopher Burke, 9, pleaded for officials to keep the current status: “I’m so happy that manatee population is increasing! But at the same time hopping you will not stop protecting them! Please don’t down list manatees. I LOVE manatees and got my best friend to love them too.”
But Marion Gibbons supports the change.
“Crystal River, FL has hands on experience addressing the needs of manatees, motor boaters, paddle water craft, tour operators, wildlife enthusiasts, residents and visitors,” Gibbons wrote. “They are excellent stewards of all these groups. Reclassifying the West Indian Manatees to threatened, will allow Crystal River to change their focus from a ‘single species protection’ (Endangered) to an ‘expanded’ focus of all wildlife in their area.”
Tripp, of the Save the Manatee Club, said some of those who participated in a peer review for the US Fish and Wildlife Service raised questions about the proposal.
“All comments and information received during the public comment are given consideration during the status review,” Underwood said. “Comments, including those from peer reviewers, are addressed in our forthcoming final decision.”
The current health of the species
McRae said wildlife officials “feel really good about these numbers.” An aerial survey ending earlier this month had a preliminary total of 6,620 creatures, compared to 6,250 in 2016 and 6,063 the year before. That’s a far cry from the estimated 1,267 manatees seen in 1991.
The supply of seagrass, the principal diet of the manatee, is good, although there were some challenges in the eastern part of the state in Indian Lagoon, he said.
While the number of counted manatees increased, so, too, did their losses to boat-inflicted injuries. Of 520 deaths last year, 104 were attributed to boats, said McRae.
Federal and state regulations, typically seasonal, target speeders in manatee zones and have a “positive impact,” he said.
While manatee deaths typically fall in the upper 300s to lower 400s, 830 were reported to have died in 2013.
“We do see year to year variation in the total numbers,” said McRae.
While the species are resilient when it comes to water quality fluctuations, toxic red tide has killed a large number of manatees in the past.
Long-term recovery plans
The Save the Manatee Club said it wants the US Fish and Wildlife Service to update its manatee recovery plan and bring back recovery teams. Such plans provide a framework for actions to protect a federally-listed species with the goal of helping the species become self-sustaining.
“There is not enough planning for the future at this point and I think manatees will suffer because of it,” Tripp said.
McRae said new data and positive population changes should be reflected in an updated federal plan. Underwood, with the federal agency, said updating the West Indian manatee plan is one of many recovery tasks that will be undertaken.
“This would include establishing a new recovery planning team,” he said. “Who would be invited to be members, what task groups might be formed, etc. would be decided at that time. No date or specific schedule has been set as our current focus remains on the reclassification decision before us.”