Earlier this year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced it downlisted the Florida manatee from “endangered” to “threatened.”
In its review, the feds considered the status of the roly-poly West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) throughout its range, which includes the Florida manatee subspecies, found primarily in the southeastern United States, and the Antillean manatee, found in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Central America, northern South America and the Greater and Lesser Antilles.
Gentle giants sporting whiskery faces, the Florida manatee have large, seal-like bodies that taper down to powerful flat tails. Averaging nine to ten feet in length, the "sea cows" weigh around 1,000 pounds but can grow as large as thirteen feet and weigh 3,000 pounds. They have a pair of agile forelimbs that act like arms or flippers to help them maneuver where they graze slowly on plants in shallow waters along the state’s coast. Slow movers, most of their time is spent eating vegetation (100-150 pounds per day), resting, and traveling.
Back in 1979 USFWS officials estimated there were only 800 to 1,000 manatees in existence. Through careful management of the manatee and its habitat, the USFWS and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have helped spike the animals' population. In February the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC) reported a preliminary count of 6,620 manatees in Florida waters, the highest count on record.
"While there is still more work to be done to fully recover manatee populations, particularly in the Caribbean, manatee numbers are increasing and we are actively working with partners to address threats," said Jim Kurth, the USFWS's Deputy Director.
Conservation efforts by local governments, industries, businesses and private citizens contributed to the manatees' recovery. Florida spends more than $2 million a year for manatee conservation. The "Save the Manatee" specialty license plate-- one of the most popular--was created to raise funds for manatee research, protection and conservation of Florida’s manatees for future generations to see and enjoy.
The downgrading comes after decades of studies and heated debate over whether Florida's most iconic creature should be dropped from the "endangered" status the marine mammal has held since America's original list of endangered species was created in March 1967.
Not everyone is pleased. Environmental and animal groups took a swipe at the downlisting saying that by focusing on the manatees’ growing numbers, the feds overlooked significant threats to its future health. They say it is premature and comes without a firm long-term recovery plan.
“Thanks to the safety net of the Endangered Species Act, broad public support and conservation efforts by the state, manatee numbers have improved over the past few decades,” noted Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.2 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
“But manatees are still in danger. With ongoing threats posed by boat strikes and habitat loss, we don't support reducing protections through downlisting yet.”
Manatees set yet another record this past winter.
"We don't necessarily like to call it a record," said Holly Edwards, a FFWCC biologist. "It's not too far off what we've had the past couple of years. We do miss animals. The true number is not really known."
The Save the Manatee Club says that boat collisions, algae blooms, habitat destruction, and manatees’ habit of gathering in the warm water discharges of power plants – rather than hot springs – all pose significant challenges that the feds failed to address in its decision to reclassify the species.
Almost one-third of all known manatee deaths are caused by human factors, and most human-related deaths are due to watercraft collisions, according to the FFWCC. Manatee 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. The FFWCC recommends that boat operators wear polarized sunglasses, which help them see beneath the water better.
Still, speeding boats repeatedly mow down manatees. Advocacy groups say propellers gash, gouge and maim hundreds of them a year. Larger boats can even cut them in half.
Data posted by the FFWCC showed that 98 endangered manatees died by watercraft strikes between Jan. 1 and Dec. 2, 2016. The previous record was 97 in 2009, according to state records. Overall, the data show 472 manatees died in 2016, with 139 deaths still undetermined and 72 due to natural causes. "It's in part a failure of enforcement, there aren't enough officers to cover around a million registered boats in Florida," said Lopez. "And there's no required manatee education that Florida boaters have to take, which is ludicrous considering the volume of people on the water."
Ray Ball is the senior veterinarian at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, which treats wounded manatees and last year set a record.
“We admitted 37 manatees," Ball said. "The majority of those were due to boat strikes. Sometimes the injuries are actually quite catastrophic.”
Minimizing manatee interactions with boats will be a priority for the USFWS in collaboration with the U.S. Coast Guard and with coastal communities in Florida.