In response to a lawsuit by the Pacific Legal Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided downlisting manatees from endangered to threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act may be warranted, and the agency is embarking on a five-year status review as part of the process.
Let me be very clear about the seriousness of the situation: From 2010-2013, 2,441 manatees died in Florida waters, which is 48 percent of the highest minimum population ever recorded (5,077 in 2010), but we’d have to wait until after 2015 to be able to include this data. However, ignoring this information would also constitute a substantial and unacceptable bias. Reviews are important, but when they’re going to be tied to a decision that could alter the fate of a species, they need to contain the best and most updated data and information.
Unfortunately for manatees, the data from the winters of 2010-2013, including record mortality for the species, the worst ever recorded red tide that resulted in manatees being committed to mass graves in Southwest Florida and a new, mysterious cause of death that has not yet even been labeled in the Indian River Lagoon, won’t be in the mix because the most recent two years of data are left out of the models to avoid bias.
A tool that is used during the review process is the Core Biological Model (CBM). In May 2013, the Manatee Forum, a group of 22 stakeholder organizations, received an update on this model as it related to the then-anticipated FWS status review. In general, the model doesn’t do much to consider changes to the natural system, although such changes are a stark reality for manatees and their habitat.
As the FWS embarks on its manatee status review, we must ensure that the agency considers all the facts and all the potential threats to manatees and their habitat, not just what can be plugged into a model. It is going to take years to understand the implications of the unprecedented record mass mortality events of 2010-2013 on Florida’s manatee population. Erring on the side of caution and acknowledging uncertainty is the prudent course for the agency. Time will tell whether integrity in our Fish and Wildlife Service is the most endangered species of all.
Dr. Katie Tripp
The writer has been Save the Manatee Club’s director of science and conservation since May 2008. She received her Ph.D. in veterinary medical sciences from the University of Florida, where she conducted research on manatee physiology.