One day after Manatee Appreciation Day was celebrated, the U.S. Department of Interior announced it was downlisting the West Indian manatee from endangered to threatened. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) said that notable increases in the manatee populations and improvements in its habitat contributed to changing the species’ status under the Endangered Species Act.
The FWS, in its review took into consideration the status of the West Indian manatee 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. The downlisting means that the manatee is no longer considered in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, but is likely to become so in the foreseeable future without continued ESA protections. The long term future of the species still face challenges but federal protections will continue to play a role in the recovery of the manatee population.
In Florida today, the estimated population of manatees is 6,620, a big turnaround from the 1970’s when just a few hundred sea cows remained. Actions taken by the FWS, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, local communities, and industry on behalf of the manatee include:
Retrofitting water control devices such as those found at locks and levees, resulting in significant decreases in manatee fatalities.
Power companies working cooperatively with federal and state conservation managers to address future loss of warm water outflows where manatees winter.
Florida counties implementing manatee protection plans and reducing boater impacts.
Increasing manatee access to several Florida natural springs while establishing sancturaries for the wintering manatees in those areas during winter cold snaps.
FWS working with the U.S. Coast Guard and FWC to minimize manatee collisions with vessels during highspeed marine events and other activities.
Fishing gear cleanup and recycling programs to reduce the threat from fishing gear entanglements.
Rescue, rehabilitation and release efforts that help save dozens of manatees annually.
“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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s acting director. “Today we both recognize the significant progress we have made in conserving manatee populations while reaffirming our commitment to continuing this species’ recovery and success throughout its range.”
Not everyone is happy about the manatees’ new status. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida, recently announced that he is leading a bipartisan effort to overturn the weakening of critical protections for the Florida manatee. He sent a letter to the Interior Secretary that was signed by 11 Florida congressmen from both parties.
In his letter the Congressman said, “This decision was disappointing and potentially very harmful to the survival of the iconic Florida animal. Based on widespread opposition from the public and scientists, we urge you to overturn this decision and restore manatees to endangered status.” He wrote that “during the public comment period for the downlisting rule, nearly 87,000 comments opposed the rule with only 72 comments in support. We would also note that the scientist invited by the Fish and Wildlife Service to formally review the downlisting plan opposed weakening manatee protections.”
Manatees face a variety of threats to their existence, including watercraft collisions, habitat loss and red tide. Additionally, the warm water springs manatees depend on during the winter months for survival are disappearing.