TAMPA — A proposal to drop the state’s signature sea mammal from the endangered species list may come down to science versus public opinion.
It appears science may win, even with an outpouring of support from some 1,200 manatee lovers across the state, nation and as far away as Mexico.
In January, the U.S. Fish and & Wildlife Service announced a plan to change the federal status of the West Indian manatee from endangered to threatened. The reason: The sea cow has made a remarkable recovery since the 1970s, when as few as 1,000 were counted bobbing about Florida’s coast and estuaries.
This is a true success story, argue proponents of the move to change the status and ease some of the restrictions it brings. They say slowing boats, creating manatee sanctuaries and spreading the word has worked. At last count, more than 6,000 manatees were spotted munching seagrass offshore and in the bays and rivers of Florida.
Not so fast, say environmentalists and wildlife advocates. Boat propellers still kill many manatees each year, and algae blooms, including red tide, claim hundreds of sea cows some years. Over the past few years, low temperatures have taken a toll in the hundreds.
Now, they say, is not the time to move the manatees from endangered to threatened.
The federal government, which proposed the down-listing, is seeking public input, and more than 1,200 comments were emailed to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in the past two months.
The deadline for comments is 11:59 p.m. April 7. Comments may be made electronically by going to www.regulations.com.
The vast majority of people object to the down-listing proposal. A sampling of 200 comments found just four in favor of the plan.
The rest objected strongly.
“As self appointed keepers of this planet, it is our duty to protect all living things to ensure their survival,” Charlene Buchan wrote. “The manatee must be protected along with all other marine life. We have no right to play God and decide who lives and who dies amongst the other species on Earth.”
While all the comments will be noted, not all carry the same weight, said U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service spokesman Chuck Underwood.
“We have a lot of comments for and against, and we appreciate them all,” Underwood said from his office in Jacksonville. “But generally speaking, we are making this decision based on science. And while all the comments will be read, ones with just opinions really are not a factor.”
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All comments are important, Underwood said, in part because they can point out things the agency might have missed. But not all commenters see the complete picture yet, he said.
“Folks are very passionate about this,” he said. “But I think they miss some aspects about it. A down-listing status change does not mean we are walking away from the animal. There still are protections in place. But at this point, we don’t think manatees meet the definition of endangered, which is they are on the verge of extinction.”
The federal government defines an endangered species as “any species that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” A threatened species, the agency says, is “any species that is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”
Once the period of public comment is closed, all the comments will be read, Underwood said. The service is awaiting additional input from marine biologists across the Caribbean, Central and South America, where manatees also are found.
“We will review all the information they provide to us, and in nine to 18 months we’ll figure that out and make a decision,” Underwood said. “It probably will be in 2017, likely early in the year.”
Benjamin Morales-Vela, a manatee researcher with the College of the Southern Border in San Cristobal, Mexico, posted this comment on the service’s website:
“As a manatee expert, there (is) not strong baseline information that supports the petition to down-list the West Indian manatee, in particular for the Antillean manatee. The basis for your action ... lacks field research support in most of the countries with Antillean manatee presence. It is a serious problem that you need to consider.”
Another comment came from Carol Hamilton, of Melbourne:
“The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has enemies, and if the agencies don’t show progress they come under fire. A recent report from the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 70 percent of agency scientists who responded to their survey ‘reported that the level of consideration of political interests at the (federal wildlife service) is too high.’ Manatees should not be prematurely down-listed in an effort to quiet ESA opponents.”
Hamilton cited other issues such as algae blooms that not only kill manatees but also kill the seagrass sea cows eat. Coastal development, cold winter waters and more boats also take their toll.
“Echo tour operators have reported seeing dead manatees on their excursions with tourists resulting in a loss of business,” Hamilton wrote. “Also, manatees will be losing their artificial warm-water when environmental regulations for discharges of heated water catch up with coastal power plants that have provided winter habitat for manatees for decades.”
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Daryl Domning, of Washington, D.C., identified himself as a biologist who has studied manatees for a half-century. He wrote:
“The basic, obvious facts are these: The governing regulations clearly state that for manatees to be down-listed, it is not sufficient that their population has grown to some arbitrary number. It is also required that the foreseeable threats to them be diminishing or under control. This is patently not the case today, with Florida’s human population continuing to balloon without foreseeable limit, together with the inevitable corollaries of more development, pollution, boat traffic, diminution of natural warm-water outflows, and other impacts.”
John Fiore, in the minority, has an opposing view:
“It is appropriate to down-list the West Indian manatee from endangered to threatened. There has been a tremendous increase in their numbers with over 6,000 recently counted in Florida. They are not in danger of extinction.”
Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation with the Save the Manatee Club, said such a reclassification would lead to an easing of restrictions on boating in areas popular with manatees and erode other protections imposed to protect them — protections that helped the species rebound from near extinction in the early 1970s.
Tripp said sea cow communities still show a low genetic diversity, meaning larger numbers are needed to create a more robust breeding population.
Still, she said, it seems the down-listing is inevitable.
“But they’re not going to get it without a fight,” she said, and that could be a court fight.
“If they would just back off on this so we could all get together and do this,” she said. “We just want them to put in the time and work with us and other stakeholders. We need a plan moving forward. They don’t see that they are going to make it harder to do the job that needs to be done if we move down this path.
“They just don’t seem to get it.”
Tripp said she was not surprised at the outpouring of support for manatees from the public.
“I think people really care about endangered species,” she said. “People really are concerned. It doesn’t take a lot of scientists to see there are big hurdles to be overcome to make sure all the work done to protect manatees doesn’t unravel.”
She said she recognizes that the Fish & Wildlife Service is focusing on facts and data and not opinions in the comments.
Still, she said, “public opinion is very important.”