The record number of Florida manatees that have died this year underscores the importance of continued protections for the seagoing mammal.
So far this year 769 manatee deaths have been documented. The state manatee population is roughly 5,000, and mortality numbers have trended upward in recent years. The creature’s long-term survival is hardly ensured.
Yet boating and development interests have continually tried to undercut manatee protections, claiming it no longer needs extensive safeguards.
In 2007, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission nearly lowered the manatee’s status from “endangered” to “threatened.”
The commission wisely backed off that controversial proposal when former Gov. Charlie Crist raised objections.
A 2012 plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to similarly reclassify the manatee has also been put on hold.
Such reclassifications don’t necessarily lessen protections, though they could lead to that. In any event, the classification should reflect the true status of an animal.
And the death rate shows the manatee remains endangered.
Manatee protections — including slow-speed zones for boats in areas manatee frequent and prohibitions against harming or harassing the creatures — enacted after the adoption of the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1973 have helped. Manatees numbered less than 2,000 then.
But serious threats that can claim scores of manatees at a time remain.
Toxic red tide is particularly deadly for manatees, and is responsible for 276 deaths this year.
Cold weather also is a killer. It accounted for about 300 manatee deaths in 2010. Boating collisions — despite manatee zones — typically account for about 20 percent of annual manatee deaths. Loss of seagrass habitat hurts the animal’s prospects.
We’re not able to do much about cold weather or red tide, but the state can improve the manatee’s outlook by maintaining sensible protections, including slow-speed zones, preserving habitat, addressing pollution sources and adequately funding research and such facilities as the David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Hospital at Lowry Park Zoo. It has rescued dozens of sick and injured manatees and is particularly effective at nursing manatees afflicted by red tide back to health.
The manatee’s status, to a great degree, reflects Florida’ stewardship of its coastal resources. The troubling manatee death rate indicates much more work needs to be done.