BY KATIE TRIPP, PhD – Florida’s manatees are at a crossroads. Well, actually, the agencies that protect manatees are at a crossroads, and manatees themselves are in the crosshairs. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is busy working behind closed doors deciding whether or not to downlist manatees from endangered to threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The agency appears fixated on the fact that there are more manatees now than there used to be. The most recent synoptic count this winter provided a new high count of over 6,000. I have read the federal Endangered Species Act many times. What I wonder is if the folks at FWS have read it, because the criteria for listing status is based on a number of things, but a minimum population estimate isn’t among them. One key factor the agency is supposed to consider is whether current and future threats to the species and its habitat are under control.
Manatees remain frequent victims of mutilating and, too often, deadly vessel strikes. Sixty percent of them are reliant upon artificial sources of warm water that are likely to disappear in the future due to lawsuits or changes in how Florida delivers power to its residents.
When temperatures in recent years fell too far for too long, some artificial refuges proved insufficient to protect manatees from the cold – from death. Manatees that use springs for winter refuge, too, often find themselves victims of harassment from swimmers and other recreational users. Red tide is a much too frequent and fatal visitor to our Gulf coast, and there’s the mysterious “unusual mortality event” in the Indian River Lagoon that killed over 100 manatees in 2013. Many of our springs, rivers and coastal waters continue to suffer from degraded water quality and our increasing human population promises to claim more spring, river, and possibly sea water for consumptive use.
My suggestion to FWS is to put away its party hats and streamers. Instead of trying to claim some artificial victory for manatees, the agency should get busy on doing what is actually needed to safeguard the future for manatees so that a legitimate downlisting could be feasible in a few years. Citizens have invested too much in this species over the years to see recovery unraveled by a misguided push to look the other way and pretend things are rosy. They’re not. We’d like to be able to work with FWS to create a better future for manatees. So FWS, we’ll either see you in the meeting room or the court room. The choice is yours.
Dr. Tripp has been Save the Manatee Club’s Director of Science and Conservation since May of 2008. She received her Ph.D. in Veterinary Medical Sciences from the University of Florida, where she conducted research on manatee physiology.