The Manatee, also known as Sea Cows, took decades to emerge from a sea of troubles.
Within a year, federal wildlife officials plan to reclassify the long-embattled Florida manatee from “endangered” to the less serious status of “threatened.”
On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to publish a proposed rule to reclassify the species. The public would then have 90 days to weigh in on the change. Then the service expects to publish the final rule to reclassify within a year.
“Based on the best available scientific information, we believe the manatee is no longer in danger of extinction,” Michael Oetker, deputy regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, said at a press conference Thursday at Miami Seaquarium.
The announcement comes after decades of studies and debate over whether Florida’s most iconic creature should drop a peg from “endangered,” a status the marine mammal has held since America’s original list of endangered species was created in 1967.
“Endangered” means the species is at risk of going extinct. “Threatened” means they no longer are at imminent risk of extinction but could become so in the foreseeable future.
Dr. John Reynolds, a marine mammal biologist, took this aerial photo at the Cape Canaveral Engery Center during a statewide manatee survey in December 2014. Reynolds said this flyover yielded the highest manatee count ever at the plant (1,141 manatees, with around 1,050 shown in this photo). (Photo: Courtesy of Florida Power & light and Dr. John Reynolds)
Wildlife officials took on a celebratory tone during Thursday’s announcement, while assuring the change wouldn’t dismantle slow-speed zones or lessen other manatee protections. But conservationists worry the reclassification would slide the manatee down a slippery slope of deregulation that would eventually gut vital protections before serious threats to the species have been addressed.
It’s unclear what exactly the status change will mean, as boating and manatee advocacy groups continue to clash over what the rules on Florida’s waters should be.
The manatee’s listing status governs how state and federal and state agencies handle boating speed limits, dock and dredging permits and access to areas manatees frequent.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission posted most of Brevard’s manatee zones in the early 1990s, late 2002 and early 2003. The zones now cover 83 square miles — about a third — of the Indian River Lagoon and its tributaries in Brevard.
The zones require boats to go slow enough to prevent excessive wake, about 5 mph to 7 mph for most vessels. Boaters face a $92 ticket for speeding through the zones.
FWC officials expressed support for the reclassification of manatee.
Beyond the Endangered Species Act, manatees receive additional protections under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, making it difficult to undo boating, permitting and other rules that protect them, federal officials said.
But Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation for the nonprofit Save the Manatee Club, fears the reclassification would loosen permitting rules to allow close to 100 manatees statewide to be killed, injured or harassed annually, what federal regulators call “takes.”
“You open the door potentially for people to write rules to ‘take’ manatees,” Tripp said.
“Some people are definitely going to feel emboldened on this,” Tripp said. “They’re also going to have a harder time coming out with any new protections.”
Manatee advocates also worry about threats yet to be sufficiently dealt with, including seagrass die-offs and toxic algae blooms and the runoff pollution that fuels them.
Sea cows face too many long-term uncertainties to change their status now, conservationists say, and 6,063 manatees — the statewide aerial count last winter — are not enough of a buffer against those threats. More than 13,000 manatees are thought to exist within the animal’s range, which includes Puerto Rico, Mexico, Central America, South America and Greater and Lesser Antilles.
The government has no concrete plan for weaning manatees off the warm-water discharges from power plants that keep manatees farther north in the winter, subjecting them to dying from cold stress, Tripp warned. “This is the biggest issue that this animal is going to face,” she said.
Save the Manatee Club may challenge a “threatened” reclassification. “Everything’s on the table,” Tripp said. Federal regulators said current protections must remain to sustain the recovery.
“It’s really a success story,” Jim Valade, Florida manatee recovery coordinator for the wildlife service, said of the proposed reclassification. “It’s like taking manatees out of intensive care and putting them in a regular care facility.”
In July 2014, the wildlife service announced the agency would move forward on a status review for the manatee, in response to a 2012 petition to reclassify the species, from “endangered” to “threatened.”
The service’s announcement of the status review came just two months after a libertarian law foundation sued the agency over the matter. In May 2014, the The Pacific Legal Foundation sued the wildlife service for continuing to list the manatee as “endangered,” despite the agency’s own research that said the species should be reclassified as “threatened.”
The Pacific Legal Foundation pursued the lawsuit on behalf of Save Crystal River, Inc. That nonprofit citizens group was concerned about new manatee idle-speed rules and expanded manatee refuge areas in Kings Bay in Citrus County.
As supporting information, PLF cited the wildlife service’s 2007 West Indian Manatee Five-Year Review which had recommended the status change. PLF also cites a stock assessment by the Fish and Wildlife Service in January 2014 that estimated the minimum current manatee population at 4,976 manatees, including 4,834 in Florida.
Citing budget and manpower issues, the wildlife service had balked at reclassifying the manatee. It also was busy responding to PLF’s 2006 lawsuit that forced the agency to review the listing status of hundreds of other species, as required by the Endangered Species Act, including 89 species in Florida.
“The good news is that the manatee is increasing and federal officials are finally acknowledging this fact,” said PLF Attorney Christina Martin. “The bad news is that federal officials took so long to accept the good news about the manatee’s improvement.”
Last February, state spotters counted a record 6,063 manatees in Florida, topping the previous record set in 2010 by almost 1,000 manatees. The same month, firefighters in Satellite Beach had to scramble to rescue 19 manatees that had wiggled up into stormwater pipes in front of City Hall.
Opponents of slow-speed boating zones and other manatee restrictions say record counts in recent years bolster the case for reclassifying to “threatened” and easing some boating and permitting restrictions.
On Tuesday (Jan. 12), Brevard County Commission Vice Chair Curt Smith plans to propose that Brevard County Commission petition FWC to “immediately begin rule-making procedures to remove unreasonable speed restrictions throughout the county, and to update Brevard manatee protection plan through a fair and transparent process.”
Commissioner: Boat speed zones to protect manatee ‘archaic’
Members of Citizens for Florida’s Waterways, a boating advocacy group in Brevard County, say the manatee should be delisted as “recovered,” which would open the door to removing slow zones and other protections.
They have been pushing for years for the state to allow 25 mph corridors through some manatee zones.
Some boating and marine industry groups also want an end to the warm water discharges from power plants, to restore manatees’ natural migration. Warm water from the power plants has for five decades trained too many manatees to winter too far north, they say, denuding the lagoon bottom of seagrass, at the expense of other marine life.
Boating advocates said Thursday’s announcement was a victory and cause for celebration of the species’ recovery. “Good news we’ve waited a long time to hear,” said Steven Webster, a government liaison for Citizens for Florida’s Waterways, a boating advocacy group based in Brevard. “Boaters have been an easy target for decades, distracting from the real issues facing manatees and our waterways.”
Want to comment on the plan to reclassify manatees as “threatened?”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will publish its proposal in the Federal Register Friday (Jan. 8, 2016), beginning a 90-day comment period in which the public is invited to submit scientific or technical information that will aid the agency in reaching its final decision.
Public comments on this proposal can be made until April 7, 2016. The finding and additional information is available online at the Federal eRulemaking Portal: www.regulations.gov/. In the Keyword box, enter Docket Number FWS-R4-ES-2015-0178.
Background information on the Florida and Antillean sub-species is available at www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/mammal/manatee/.
2015 manatee deaths
As of Dec. 18, there were 85 manatees killed by watercraft in Florida in 2015, about 22 percent of the overall death toll, compared with a five-year average of 76 (16 percent). That outpaced 67 manatees killed by watercraft in Florida the previous year.
Typically, watercraft account for 20 percent of total manatee deaths.
In Brevard, 98 manatees died, the most in any Florida county, compared with 85 in 2014 and 244 in 2013, the year of an unusual manatee die off yet to be solved.
In 2015, Brevard’s manatee deaths broke down as follows: 11 watercraft-related, 29 perinatal (within a year of birth), six cold stress, six natural, 32 undetermined and 10 unrecovered.
Brevard’s manatee death toll represented 25 percent of the 395 deaths statewide in 2015.
But Brevard commonly tops the list, given the county’s 72-mile length and how much prime manatee habitat in the Indian River Lagoon falls within its borders.
In 2006, there were a record 22 watercraft-related deaths in Brevard.
In 2013, 163 of the 244 manatee deaths reported as “undetermined” causes.
Biologists have yet to figure out what caused a mysterious illness that began in mid-2012, killing more than 130 manatees in the Indian River Lagoon, most of them in Brevard.
The manatee carcasses appeared otherwise healthy, but their guts were full of drift algae.
State biologists say back-to-back severe algae blooms that killed the lagoon’s seagrass may have contributed to the unusual manatee die-off. Source: Fish and Wildlife Research Institute
Boating advocates have long argued that vessels account for a small percentage of the overall manatee death toll. Boating advocacy groups say that Florida is focused too much attention on regulating boating and not enough on curbing water pollution and habitat loss.