As one of the first animals protected by the federal government in 1966, the manatee has become the face of endangered species. But efforts by conservation groups and the government may be lifting it from “endangered” to “threatened”.
A recent aerial survey conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission concluded that there are at least 6,620 “sea cows” swimming in the waters around Florida, an all-time high.
Some view this increase in population as a reason to move the creatures to the “threatened” classification, but others believe that it is too soon to decrease their protections. The Florida manatees have been under government protection for 50 years and continue to experience hardships, sometimes even because of their growing numbers.
Clare Aslan, a community ecologist and conservation biologist at Northern Arizona University, explained that “a downlisting reduces the protections offered to a species,” often allowing less stringent regulations for handling the creatures.
Manatees are still vulnerable to dangerous human interactions: most manatees bear scars from boat propellers on their backs and 104 of the 520 manatee deaths reported in 2016 were attributed to boats. These creatures are also susceptible to changing weather and the decreasing number of natural sources of warmth in their shrinking environment drive them to seek shelter from cold water in warm water running from power plants.
The human impact on the manatee’s environment is significant and constantly changing, but the animal has been moving toward a “threatened” status since 2007, when the Department of the Interior, which heads the US Fish and Wildlife Service, recommended reclassifying them.
In 2012, the Pacific Legal Foundation petitioned again to have them reclassified by the Fish and Wildlife Service. This petition kicked off another federal examination which recommended downgrading the animal, though the service still has not released a final decision.
“We’re happy that the manatee is doing well, and we just want the government to follow the requirements,” said Christina Martin of the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Palm Beach Gardens office. Should the manatee be reclassified, the animals would still be protected by both the ESA and the Marine Mammal Protection Act as it has been for the past 50 years.
However, some conservation groups still fear that the shift would lead to looser restrictions and that a growing population but consistent threats will ultimately place the majestic “sea cow” back on the endangered list in a matter of years.
Top photo by psyberartist, CC BY 2.0
Lauren Leising is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.