Government Considering Fewer Protections for Endangered Manatees

Changing the sea cow’s status could mean more boats in Florida waterways and more collisions with the slow-moving marine mammals.

(Photo: Kallista Images/Getty Images)

Nov 17, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

It’s getting colder—relatively speaking—in Florida, and manatees are taking notice.

Every winter, the fat-yet-blubber-free marine mammals migrate from the state’s waterways to congregate at freshwater springs, man-made canals, and power plant outflows to survive the winter in steady, warmer water.

With the migration starting around November each year, wildlife officials warn boaters—the No. 1 killer of the lumbering sea cows—to slow down and keep an eye out for the creatures, which are listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Seasonal closures of waterways for manatees went into effect statewide on Nov. 15. But in the years ahead, the manatees may arrive at their warm-water destinations less protected than when they started their journey.

That’s because FWS is reviewing a petition to downgrade the West Indian manatee from endangered to threatened and could make a determination by early next year.

Who sent in a petition to downgrade protections for a species that scientists identify by the boat-propeller scars on their bodies?

That would be the Pacific Legal Foundation, representing a group of waterfront property owners on the Gulf Coast.

“The number [of manatees] continues to increase every year, at every location around the state,” PLF attorney Alan DeSerio said in a video defending the petition. “If the manatee recovery continues, then delisting it entirely should be something we look at in the future.”

Manatee populations have increased from about 1,800 in the early 1990s to around 5,000 today, according to wildlife officials.

That’s just one side of the story, argues conservation groups South Florida Wildlands Association, the Save the Manatee Club, and the Humane Society.

The mammal faces continued threats from waterfront development, pollution, and, most of all, boats, according to Matthew Schwartz, executive director at South Florida Wildlands Association.

“I mean, they had hundreds of manatees die off in Indian River Lagoon, and they still don’t know what caused it,” Schwartz said in a phone interview. “There’s going to be an increase in boat traffic and an increase in development. This is not the time to relax protections for manatees.”

More than 41 percent of dead manatees recovered are the victims of boat collisions; a record 829 manatees died in 2013 alone.

FWS officials said they will make their decision solely based on a science-based threat analysis outlined in the Endangered Species Act. They also will consider the more than 40,000 public comments.

Chuck Underwood, an FWS spokesman, said little would change if manatees were downgraded.

If reclassification occurred, it would mean we (federal, state, and private partners) are being successful in moving this species away from the threat of extinction,” Underwood wrote in an email. “Little else would change. Existing protections would not change, manatee conservation efforts would continue well into the foreseeable future, and additional measures could be taken if future data indicates such action is needed for successful recovery.”

Still, the move would put manatees one level closer to delisting, which could give developers more leeway if their projects affect the species.

“Manatees are hardly out of danger,” Schwartz said. “They need the full protection of the Endangered Species Act, not the watered-down version they would get.”