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No Time to Celebrate: Manatees’ Future Far from Certain

Above, a manatee with scars from a boat strike. The Service’s recent announcement that it believes the risks and threats to manatees are pretty well under control indicates that they’re satisfied with the status quo that leaves manatees dying of boat strikes, poisoned by red tide exposure, and facing loss of winter habitat.
Above, a manatee with scars from a boat strike. The Service’s recent announcement that it believes the risks and threats to manatees are pretty well under control indicates that they’re satisfied with the status quo that leaves manatees dying of boat strikes, poisoned by red tide exposure, and facing loss of winter habitat.

Op Ed by Katie Tripp, Ph.D.
Director of Science & Conservation, Save the Manatee Club

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—January 12, 2016
Contact: media@savethemanatee.org, 407-539-0990

On January 7, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) announced plans to downlist all West Indian manatees from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Given the political inconveniences of manatee protection in the U.S., the move to downlist Florida manatees was expected. The decision to include the whole species is surprising, since there are about as many manatees in the entire rest of the range (Greater Antilles, Mexico, Central America, and South America) as there are in Florida, and “population trends are declining or unknown in 84 percent of the countries where manatees are found,” according to the Service.

The Service’s announcement came at an interesting time in Florida. In December, Florida’s human population surpassed 20 million, a seagrass die-off affecting 40,000 acres in Florida Bay made the news, the National Marine Manufacturers Association reported that boat sales could increase 8% in 2016, reaching pre-recession levels, and the Naples Daily News reported on conflicts between growth and the environment, stating, “Too often in 2015, the balance tipped against the environment and its inhabitants.” Red tide blooms on Florida’s west coast began in the fall and claimed manatee lives in the final weeks of 2015, and continues in 2016. While Service officials were celebrating on January 7th and reporting that the risks and threats to manatees are under control, a young manatee in Citrus County, Florida, was discovered with a severe watercraft injury that shattered the bones of her vertebral column and penetrated her spinal cord. Another manatee, in Lake Okeechobee, was found with symptoms of a punctured lung from a vessel strike. Ironically, Service officials used hospital analogies during their press conference, saying the move from endangered to threatened was like a transition out of intensive care. When questioned whether the model used for the U.S. manatee population included record mortality events from 2010 and 2013, the Service indicated that analysis was incomplete, but they were moving forward based on available information. Hospital patients don’t get moved out of the ICU before the test results are in.

Sticking with the medical analogies, the Service should be focused on the kind of preventative care that keeps manatees out of the metaphorical hospital. The Service’s announcement that it believes the risks and threats to manatees are pretty well under control indicates that they’re satisfied with the status quo that leaves manatees dying of boat strikes, poisoned by red tide exposure, and facing loss of winter habitat. One official said the future looked “rosy” for manatees. Yet the 12-month finding states, “Within the southeastern United States, the potential loss of warm water at power plants and natural, warm-water springs used by wintering manatees is identified as a significant threat… Natural springs are threatened by potential reductions in flow and water quality… Power plants, which provide winter refuges for a majority of the Florida manatee population, are not permanent reliable sources of warm water.”

The Core Biological Model, which weighed heavily in the decision-making, “predicts that it is unlikely (<2.5 percent chance) that the southeastern U.S. population will fall below 4,000 total individuals over the next 100 years, assuming current threats remain constant indefinitely.” But we know that the threats won’t remain constant; they’ll increase as more than 60% of the manatee population is affected by the “pending” loss of artificial warm water when environmental regulations catch up with the power plants that discharge heated water. There are no plans yet developed to determine how to replace lost warm water habitat, how to get manatees to transition to new sites, or how to minimize negative impacts to the manatee population in the process.

Recovery is about much more than just species abundance. While Service officials acknowledged that population numbers aren’t always the best way to approach recovery, they seem comfortable using them to justify downlisting. And what about the rising boat sales, the failure of the state’s boater education requirements to reach most of the state’s boaters, the fact that average boater compliance is only 54%, and the pent up coastal development that is about to burst with the recovering economy? The agencies are not prepared to prevent or offset these cumulative effects. When they finally get around to addressing manatees’ necessary transition from artificial to natural warm water sites, they’re going to find a confused, and likely unsupportive public who thought the agencies had everything under control due to all of the celebrating. In a 2010 Service report on warm water habitat, the agency stated, “Implementation of management decisions is very much influenced by stakeholder values and public perception of manatee status and protection from threats.” How will the Service garner the public and financial support needed to recover manatees if the public thinks the manatees’ future is “rosy.”

The Service says protections for manatees won’t change with downlisting. That’s not comforting since some big changes ARE needed to get the manatees’ habitat secured for the future. Unfortunately, the agencies will be lucky if they can manage to hang on to existing protections in the years to come. The Tampa Tribune reported one manatee foe’s beliefs: “there is no longer a need for widespread boating restrictions” or “sanctuaries in which vessels are prohibited…” Another group’s website states that downlisting, “may also prevent additional unnecessary regulations and reduce the need for some existing ones…” The latest anti-manatee tactic is to paint them as destroyers of the environment, making statements including, “If we can’t do anything to manage the size and location of the herd, we are doomed to sit back and hope the manatee does not over pressure the SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation) to the point it cannot sustain…” These same folks are trying to get legislation sponsored in Tallahassee that would destroy the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act and are lobbying for rules to allow the legal take (read: killing) of manatees.

The Service claims budget cuts and personnel losses are why they haven’t addressed key issues. This would be believable if the agency hadn’t just dedicated about two years of staff time to writing a reclassification rule instead of getting the Recovery Team back to work and making progress on an updated Recovery Plan. One official at the press conference explained that if they didn’t do the work of reclassifying manatees to threatened, they would show no progress. That’s really what this is about. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has enemies, and if the agencies don’t show movement, they come under fire. A recent report from the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists surveyed employees of the Service and found a need for “reducing the level of political influence on decision making” since 70% of agency scientists who responded to the survey “reported that the level of consideration of political interests at the FWS is too high.” Another problem is likely the Service leadership itself. The Assistant Director for Endangered Species has stated that “historically the U.S. FWS has over-protected endangered species. We need to bring that back into balance.” And the agency’s Director is quoted as saying he sees a “giant clash” between those who favor conservation and those who favor economic development, and believes conservationists “must accept a world with fewer wolves, salmon, and spotted owls” and apparently manatees.

Save the Manatee Club has been working for almost 35 years towards a day when manatees can be downlisted and ultimately delisted from the Endangered Species Act, but the manatees’ future is far from certain, which means the work is far from over.

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Dr. Katie Tripp 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.

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