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Reclassifying Florida manatees: From endangered to threatened

Fish and Wildlife Service is considering downgrading the species’ status, which could loosen marine regulations

For more than four decades, the iconic, blubbery Florida manatee has been listed as an endangered species, enabling it to survive in protected warm water habitats along busy, heavily populated Florida coasts.

The whiskered marine mammals, which can weigh as much as 3,500 lbs., make a home where there are plentiful sea grasses and freshwater from estuaries and slow-moving rivers. That does lead the sea cows into conflict with humans, especially via boat collisions. It’s rare to find a manatee that hasn’t been struck, to the point that scars and gouges are commonly used to identify the survivors.

But now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is considering reclassifying manatees down to threatened status, a process that could take at least one year to determine. Protections for endangered species are fixed by law; those for threatened species can be reduced by administrative decision. Although manatees would still remain protected, the move to become merely threatened would allow restrictions to be lessened for waterfront development and allow boaters to drive at faster speeds something that could — in theory — lead to more manatee collisions. That has some activists outraged.

“It would be a foolish thing to downlist manatees now,” said Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club. Rose is one of the world’s leading experts on manatees and was the first federal coordinator for manatee recovery in Florida. “I call them the 'tugboat' species because of the political tug of war involving these animals,” he added.

‘It would be a foolish thing to downlist manatees now. I call them the ‘tugboat’ species because of the political tug of war involving these animals.’

Pat Rose

director, Save the Manatee

Wildlife officials disagree about the threat posed by the possible change. “People have misperceptions that we have two lists. It’s one classification. Being endangered or threatened relates to whether a species is moving toward extinction or not. Manatees will remain protected,” said Chuck Underwood, FWS spokesperson.

But in the last few years, manatee mortality has increased dramatically. Last year, scientists were baffled when more than 800 manatees perished in different parts of the state. On the west coast, there were toxin-producing algal blooms known as red tide that settled on sea grasses manatees eat. Scientists speculate that the microscopic algae could be occurring more frequently due to increasing amounts of nutrients from lawns and farmlands being absorbed into the waterways. On the east coast, an unprecedented cover of algae bloomed across 47,000 acres of coastline and smothered sea grasses. Dead manatees, pelicans and dolphins washed up on shore.

Yet at the same time — and over a longer time scale — the species seems to be doing well. Before 2007, manatee populations gained ground so well that in the FWS five-year review, the animals were considered good candidates to be reclassified to threatened status. In 2010, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the minimum known population was 5077, more than twice that of a decade earlier.

“Numbers tell us partially what’s going on. What they don’t tell us is how many manatees total we have out there and how healthy they are. We don’t know if the numbers represent 90 percent or half of the population. We don’t have statistical high confidence,” said Underwood.

Part of that vagueness is how the animals are counted. Flight surveys rely on catching a glimpse of the animals when they bob up for air. The weather conditions must be ideal and water must be transparent to see and count them. Plus, the assessments are only done in winter, when manatees predictably migrate to warm waters near power plants and springs.

Yet the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a libertarian-leaning national law firm, is using the numbers in the five-year review as ammunition to change the manatee’s endangered status. The PLF is representing some well-connected waterfront property owners around King’s Bay, who formed the Save Crystal River (SCR) group in 2011. 

‘People have misperceptions that we have two lists. It’s one classification. Being endangered or threatened relates to whether a species is moving toward extinction or not. Manatees will remain protected.’

Chuck Underwood

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

King’s Bay, which forms the headwaters of the Crystal River, continues to be a critical habitat where manatees migrate each winter. But for boat motorists and local residents, it’s a playground that leads from the river and the bay to the Gulf, as well as a source of both leisure and work activities.

The court fight pits those championing environmental protections against those wanting more human use of the landscape. But in this case, the PLF’s stated goals to protect free enterprise and bring a common-sense approach to environmental regulation have meant attempts to dismantle land-use regulations in what some say are ecologically critical habitats. The SCR has twice before petitioned Florida to remove all manatee protections from the area, and both times they were they were denied. Now it is trying again and the PLF has recently won battles over other species. Last year, the PLF was able to get the formerly endangered wood stork bird reclassified to threatened status.

But as the court fight looms over the manatee, one man thinks he may have an answer for how to protect the animals in their safe zones. And it is a paradoxical one: let boats go faster through their habitat.

Edmund Gerstein of Florida Atlantic University has been testing manatee hearing and said part of the problem is that manatees can’t hear the low frequency sounds made by the propellers of slow-moving boats. He concluded that demanding slower speeds for boats was making things worse because manatees could hear only the propellers sounds of faster boats that produce higher-frequency sounds. This led him to develop an acoustic alarm device that emits high frequency sounds in the water, which he said could be used to warn the animals of boats coming into their path.

Although strikes by fast boats are more likely to result in death than those by slower-moving boats, Gerstein’s conclusions have received enthusiastic support from boating groups — yet not from the FWC.

“The FWC is very resistant to it. They’re waiting for more results,” said Gerstein.

The findings certainly go against the FWC’s own research. In 2007, FWC biologists published a paper that laid out the conceptual basis for why slower boat speeds reduced risks to manatees, and why the FWC and others would continue to use boat speed limits as protective measures.

Given all the debate about manatees — how best to protect them or whether they even need much protection — only one thing seems certain: their reputation as a “tugboat” species remains intact.

“Manatees are like a tugboat pushing and pulling protections for the entire aquatic ecosystem, along with its protections as an endangered species,” said Rose.

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