The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has announced that it is considering weakening protection for Florida manatees, but advocates for these peaceful “sea cows” believe they still face a barrage of threats and that giving them the greatest level of protection is now more important than ever.
Florida manatees were listed as endangered in 1967 and, though their numbers have grown over the past few decades, estimates say there were as few as 4,824 manatees during a statewide survey conducted in 2011, and even now there is no solid estimate of their population. So why is the FWS considering weakening manatee protections?
One reason appears to be that the FWS is being sued to downgrade the manatee’s status from “endangered” to “threatened” by the anti-environmental law firm the Pacific Legal Foundation, which took action on behalf of Crystal River Inc. The organization originally petitioned to have the West Indian Manatee and its subspecies, Florida and Antillean manatees, downgraded in 2012 based on a recommendation to do so that was made by the FWS in 2007.
One of the main reasons Crystal River Inc. is taking action is to make sure that the Crystal River doesn’t get turned into an idle-water zone, which it believes would impact fishing and recreational boaters.
This is what manatees are facing now as an endangered species in Crystal River Springs:
Despite protections and rules for boaters, collisions with watercraft remain the main cause of death for these slow moving animals. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, approximately 25-30 percent of manatee deaths statewide are attributed to watercraft.
Boat strikes aside, conservationists are still worried that manatees are facing too many issues that threaten their survival. Since the FWS recommended downgrading them in 2007, they’ve been plagued with a record number of deaths and continue to face potential threats that range from climate change, habitat loss and pollution to diseases, harassment, entanglement in fishing gear, and a host of other environmental problems, including red tide, algal blooms and cold weather.
Last year alone there were 830 documented deaths, double the number from 2012, and 218 so far for the first six months of 2014.
The manatee’s reliance on warm water and the potential loss of man-made sources of heat, which they’ve come to rely on, also raises serious concerns. According to the FWS, nearly two-thirds of the manatee population winters at industrial warm-water sites, which are now made up almost entirely of power plants.
A spokesman for the FWS said there’s little difference in the classifications, but Patrick Rose, Save the Manatee Club’s executive director, warned there’s still too much uncertainty about their future to change the animal’s status. The organization believes “reclassification would would set the stage for an avalanche of adverse consequences for manatees and their aquatic ecosystem through the elimination of environmental regulations and would also undermine our own quality of life.”
“All indications are that things are worse not better,” Rose told Florida Today. “We’re going to make sure that the service has all of that information available to them.”
The FWS will now be conducting a 90-day status review to determine whether changing the manatee’s status is warranted, while simultaneously conducting its required 5-year status review.
Please sign and share our Care2 petition asking the FWS not to strip endangered status from Florida manatees.
The FWS will also be accepting public comments at regulations.gov until September 2.
Photo credit: Tracy Colson/USFWS