Florida’s fabled manatees got several rounds of applause this week as state and federal officials celebrated decades of hard-fought conservation successes. In the process, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the species could soon be “downlisted” from endangered status to the lesser category of “threatened,” an indication that the sea cows are no longer immediately threatened with extinction.
The potential category change—which would take several more months to become official—does not mean the manatees are out of the woods, but it is a recognition that their population around Florida has increased to more than 6,000. (It’s also a response to a 2014 lawsuit from a libertarian organization called the Pacific Legal Foundation.)
Despite the population increase, agency officials were quick to point out during a press conference on Jan. 7 that the species remains at risk and conservation efforts are still required. “It's like taking manatees out of intensive care and putting them in a regular care facility,” said Jim Valade, the FWS team leader for manatee recovery.
It also does not mean that the regulatory protections put in place to protect manatees would disappear under a threatened designation. FWS officials pointed out that threatened species receive the same protections as endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. Manatees are also covered under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which this category change does not affect. Regulations such as boating speed limits would stay in place, officials said during the press conference.
Those long-standing protections are obviously still very much necessary. Last year 405 manatees were found dead in Florida, more than 6 percent of the animals in the state (the count does not include manatees that died in neighboring states). Of those, 87 manatees died after being hit by speeding boats, an increase of 14 over 2014. Another 37 died from cold stress (manatees can’t handle temperatures below 20 degrees Celsius), while 89 young manatees died of a range of causes in the weeks after their birth. The majority of the deaths, 129, were from undetermined causes.
This was actually a fairly good year for Florida manatees compared to 2013, when 15 percent of the population died, most of which were killed during a particularly toxic and widespread algal bloom, commonly referred to as a red tide.
Could high mortality rates like that still await in the future? As Craig Pittman of the Tampa Bay Times points out, Florida’s boaters aren’t going anywhere any time soon. In fact there are more of them than ever, as well as more tourists visiting the state.
Meanwhile, several conservation groups have come out in strong opposition to the reclassification. Researchers and conservationists have warned that climate change could bring more extreme weather to the southeastern U.S., which could create more manatee-unfriendly cold snaps, red tides, habitat degradation and other threats. FWS’s assessment of manatee recovery may not currently reflect these potential future threats—and admittedly doesn’t even cover all of the current dangers. FWS said new analysis based on red tide mass-mortality events in 2010 and 2013 is expected in the next “several months.”
What do you think? Should manatees be considered threatened or stay listed as endangered? The public has 90 days from today to file their opinions or any information they might have on the potential change. Comments can be submitted to FWS here.