The West Indian manatee, which calls the waterways and coastlines of Florida home, should no longer be classed as endangered and should be downlisted, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). The rotund, slow-moving herbivore has recovered in numbers over the last 50 years to such an extent that the strict rules governing the rivers and springs in which they live should be relaxed, although the agency stresses that the animals will not lose any protection themselves.
“The manatee’s recovery is incredibly encouraging and a great testament to the conservation actions of many,” explained Cindy Dohner, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Southeast Regional Director, in a statement. “Today’s proposal is not only about recognizing this progress, but it’s also about recommitting ourselves to ensuring the manatee’s long-term success and recovery.”
Many manatees show the scars from being hit by boats going too fast through their waterways. Lynn Hristov/Shutterstock
In 1967 the aquatic mammals were placed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), as they were under increasing pressure from hunting, habitat loss, and being caught in fishing gear. Due to their habit of slowly floating along just under the surface of the waterways as they graze on aquatic plants and bathe in the Sun, they are also at particular risk of being killed or injured by boat strikes. When the FWS conducted their first aerial survey of manatees in 1991 they recorded just 1,267 of the animals in the waters of Florida, while last year that number had risen to 6,300.
This increase in numbers of 500 percent in just 25 years is one of the reasons why they propose downlisting the species on the ESA to “threatened.” This will not change their federal protections, but would lift restrictions on fishing and boating within certain parts of their range, something that some recreational boating groups and tour operators have been calling for. They claim that under current government rules, the manatee doesn’t actually qualify for endangered status, which requires a species to be “currently in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”
Some groups are calling for the species to be downlisted to ease the restrictions on boats and fishing. Greg Amptman/Shutterstock
The West Indian manatee isn’t solely limited to American waters, as the species is found throughout the Caribbean and the northern coasts of Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil. It is estimated that in total there are around 13,000 of the animals surviving, which makes the population living in Florida the most important within their range.
Conservation groups, however, argue that the docile sea cows still face major threats within the southern state. One of the major issues impacting the manatee population is toxic algal blooms, such as the red tide in the Gulf of Mexico in 2013, which killed a record 276 of the animals. Another problem is the weather, as the mammals require warm water year round, with cold snaps killing 829 manatees in the same year. Because of these changing threats, they say, the animals should still retain all the protection they currently have.