Manatee Downlisting: If The Criteria Don't Fit...
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For Immediate Release: January 16, 2003
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) is set to meet on January 23 to re-evaluate the endangered status of the manatee under the Florida Endangered Species Act. In light of recent record watercraft-related mortality figures, the FWCC should defer their decision until they have strong scientific evidence to show that downlisting the manatee is warranted at this time.
Scientists with the FWCC’s Florida Marine Research Institute recently released manatee mortality figures for 2002. Last year, watercraft-related manatee mortality reached an all-time record high of 95 deaths or 31% of total manatee deaths.
Special interest groups like the marine industry and organized boating and fishing groups claim that more manatees are being killed because there are more manatees. However, scientific data presented at the Manatee Population Workshop in Gainesville in April 2002 does not support the notion that there is an increase in the manatee population. A panel of population experts, manatee scientists, and resource managers did agree that there is no proper life history model at this time to determine whether the population is growing or not.
Since the early 1990s, registrations for recreational vessels in Florida have increased by about 33%. Presently, there are more than 900,000 boats registered in Florida and approximately 400,000 boats registered in other states using Florida’s waterways. With more and more boats on Florida's waterways, we can expect an increased risk of manatee injuries and mortalities. (We can curb this upward trend with effective regulations, law enforcement, and greater voluntary compliance.)
The reason this issue is now before the Commissioners is because the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida (CCA), a fishing group, petitioned the FWCC to re-evaluate the endangered status of the manatee under the state's Endangered Species Act, which resulted in a biological review. (It is important to note that this is not the same law as the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), and regardless of the state's decision on reclassification, manatees are still listed as an endangered species under the ESA.)
What is most problematic and frustrating about the biological review is that manatees are stuck with the FWCC's extremely stringent, "one-size-fits-all-species" listing/delisting criteria criteria that do not consider individual species' life histories and are not suitable for long-lived, slow-reproducing animals such as marine mammals. Under the current criteria, a species may have to undergo or be at the risk of undergoing an 80% decline in its population. Even the critically endangered northern right whale, whose population numbers about 300 animals, would likely not qualify as either endangered or threatened under the FWCC current definitions. It is imperative that these inappropriate criteria are subjected to a thorough review by qualified, independent scientists and/or replaced with criteria tailored to individual species' life histories.
An assessment of the biological status of any species should be based on scientific benchmarks similar to those supported by the Manatee Population Status Working Group (scientists with background in population modeling), including:
- Stable or increasing survival rates of all age classes
- Stable or increasing reproductive rates
- Comprehensive habitat protection
- Significant reduction of human-related mortality
Last year’s high watercraft mortality is further proof that manatees still need the full protection of their endangered status. In addition, a count of 2,861 manatees during last week’s statewide synoptic survey, done under optimal conditions, suggests that the population has not grown by leaps and bounds as some special interest groups would have you believe. (The last survey done under optimal conditions was in 2001 when 3,276 manatees were counted.)
The FWCC should defer the discussion of reclassification until the above-mentioned benchmarks have been established and met and they have appropriate listing/delisting criteria that fit the species. It’s the least the Commission can do for these hapless animals facing such incredible odds for their continued survival.
Read a letter providing comments on the status of manatees by Robert H. Mattlin, Executive Director of the Marine Mammal Commission.