United States: Manatees may lose endangered species status

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing whether the manatee should be reclassified as a “threatened” species, which would allow some flexibility for federal officials as the species recovers while maintaining most of the protections afforded to animals listed as endangered.

As part of the lengthy review process, the agency is seeking public comment on its finding that a petition to reclassify the manatee has merits. A decision on whether a change is warranted won’t be made until the agency completes its review, which could take a year.

Manatees, also known as sea cows, are vegetarian giants that average nearly 10 feet long and 2,200 pounds and live near the shore and in coastal waterways around much of Florida. The animal’s biggest threats are boats, cold water, toxic algae blooms and fishing debris like discarded lines and ropes.

Critics of the manatee’s current endangered listing say manatees are important to the state’s tourism industry and environment, so everyone wants them to thrive, but the species has recovered sufficiently over the last 47 years to be reclassified.

Florida’s manatee population has grown from several hundred in 1967 to over 4,800 in this year. Under current regulations, boaters must avoid manatee areas or obey tight speed limits and fishermen can’t use some equipment.

According to the wildlife service, officials began working on the reclassification proposal in 2013, but those efforts were suspended amid funding constraints, the U.S. government shutdown and concerns over recent spikes in manatee deaths, particularly during cold snaps. A record 829 manatees died last year, breaking the 2010 record of 766, according to state records.

The most worrisome deaths last year were not collisions with boats. A record 276 manatee deaths were caused by a toxic red tide bloom in the Gulf of Mexico. There were also the unexplained deaths of more than 100 manatees on Florida’s east coast, where pollution and algae blooms have plagued a vital lagoon ecosystem.

The vast majority of comments submitted to the wildlife service plead with officials to continue listing the manatee as endangered. Florida residents cite the manatees they’ve seen with scars from run-ins with boats or fishing debris, while out-of-state commenters describe the thrill of spotting the unique marine mammals in the water.

Some say the manatee should be protected as a symbol, not just as an animal.

Source | Associated Press