Scientists are divided on impact of downgrading protections for manatees from “endangered” to “threatened.”
By Elizabeth Djinis | Sarasota Herald-Tribune
SARASOTA — News of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to reclassify the West Indian manatee from endangered to threatened came just as Mote Marine Laboratory’s program manager of manatee research was finishing his latest book on the popular marine mammal.
John Reynolds, who formerly chaired the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, was conveniently working on the epilogue for his book, “Florida Manatees: Biology, Behavior, and Conservation,” and decided to add a short piece on why he felt the decision was premature.
But late last month, after more than a year of public comment and deliberation from the federal agency, the service moved to reclassify the West Indian manatee — which includes two subspecies, the Florida manatee and the largely Caribbean-dwelling Antillean manatee — from “endangered” to “threatened.” The decision is not as earth-shattering as it sounds: the same federal protective guidelines apply under the lower designation.
Still, while manatee counts have risen in recent years, scientists like Reynolds argue that the animals face challenges to their habitat and environment that will only worsen in the future.
“That was a premature decision,” Reynolds said, citing the state’s rising human population as one factor. “I find it hard to believe that if we can’t control the threats now, we’re going to magically be able to control them when there’s so many more people.”
But U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff counter that the “threatened” status still acknowledges those situations while also factoring in the marine mammal’s conservation success story. A 2017 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission survey of manatees from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2 found more than 6,000 Florida manatees in total, a significant increase from the fewer than 1,500 reported in the state in 1991, when aerial surveys began. Estimates for the Antillean manatee population cited by the service in their decision have the subspecies at about the same count, according to data from 2010 and 2012.
“This species as a whole is definitely not headed toward extinction,” said Chuck Underwood, spokesman for the agency’s North Florida Ecological Services office. “But there are still threats, which means it fits the definition of a threatened species, not an endangered species.”
Although the federal guidelines remain the same, conservationists worry that the changes in status will prompt state and local governments to reduce protections, such as restricted speed boating zones and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act, which makes it illegal to disturb manatees.
Underwood stressed that the reclassification is not meant to be a signal to lawmakers to relax any protections. In fact, the lowered threatened status has resulted from the positive impact of those very rules, he said.
“In the initial weeks after we submitted our proposal, we heard some discussions by some locations in local counties to roll back county protections, and none of that actually came to fruition,” Underwood said. “The threat still remains — it’s not a question of are they so good that we can lift protections? The reality is they’re so good because protections are in place and absent that we might very well have to go the other direction on them.”
Last week, 11 bipartisan Florida lawmakers — led by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key — signed a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior asking the agency to reverse the service’s decision.
The legislators called it “disappointing” and “potentially very harmful” to the animal’s survival.
“As you may know, the manatee at one time was on the brink of extinction,” the letter reads. “We cannot support any action that could lead to such conditions again.”
Despite threats of potential lawsuits and Buchanan’s letter, representatives from U.S. Fish and Wildlife say it is unlikely they will reconsider.
“The reality is, they’re going to have to be able to sit down and show to the court that somewhere along the line in our massive amount of data that we looked through that we missed something,” Underwood said.
At the same time, a new report and update of a computer model published April 11 by the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with Florida Fish and Wildlife, puts the probability of the Florida manatee population falling below 500 adults on the Gulf or East Coast within the next 100 years at an incredibly low rate — 0.42 percent.
Yet scientists like Reynolds and Save the Manatee Club’s executive director, Pat Rose, are still concerned that the service’s decision to declassify was made too early to be successful.
But there is one topic that may warrant reconsideration in the future, according to concerned scientists and U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff alike: the Antillean manatee.
Reynolds said the subspecies, which are sometimes hunted, can get “hammered in some countries” and called including them in the declassification “a bad move.”
“Eighty-four percent of the Antillean population is essentially in trouble, but they ignored that as well,” Rose said. “I wish it were a time to celebrate. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, but this is not a legally or scientifically defensible reclassification.”
In response to those concerns, Underwood said that the agency was never asked to evaluate the two subspecies separately. Should they be asked to do so in the future, they may come to a different conclusion, although that would require an additional input of resources.
“We would need time and a future to do that,” Underwood said. “And we may very well revisit that, but right now, that wasn’t what we were asked to do.”