The manatee — for decades the poster mammal for environmental decline in Florida — is officially no longer an endangered species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday that the manatee will instead be designated “threatened” — a status change that reflects a boom in population over the last decade. In February, Florida wildlife managers released preliminary results of an annual count that recorded 6,620 manatees lumbering in the warm waters of Florida’s lagoons, springs and canals.
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It was the third consecutive year the estimated population increased — a trend that federal wildlife managers pointed to as a sign of successful recovery for a species that once numbered in the hundreds in Florida waters when they announced plans in 2016 to reclassify the iconic species.
“The Florida manatee population has continued to increase. We see that in the surveys done every winter,” Larry Williams, the agency’s state supervisor, said in a press briefing.
But environmental groups argue the rebound comes along with a growing number of manatee deaths, particularly from boat strikes, and that the manatee’s fate remains uncertain. There is, for instance, a growing trend by manatees to huddle during cooler winter months in artificial habitats created by power plants. If those shut down, there could be major losses.
“We believe this is a devastating blow to manatees,” Patrick Rose, Executive Director for Save the Manatee Club, said in a statement. “A federal reclassification at this time will seriously undermine the chances of securing the manatee’s long- term survival.”
Without first coming up with a plan to replace habitat around power plants if they shut down, the move is premature, he said. And while population numbers are up, so are deaths by boats.
“Manatees are still in danger. With ongoing threats posed by boat strikes and habitat loss, we don’t support reducing protections through down-listing yet,” Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.
But wildlife managers say the change in status is largely symbolic and that the slow speed zones and other protections that have helped manatees recover will remain in place.
“The same level of protection is in place,” Williams said. “We expect no change in speed zones, in the enforcement of speed zones, no change in manatee protection area. No changes in anything.”
Defenders of Wildlife also pointed to an analysis it commissioned that found the wildlife agency used outdated population information that failed to reflect deaths between 2009 and 2016.
While the downlisting may not reduce protections, said CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark, “it may create the incorrect impression that the manatee is doing better than it is, and that those protections can be reduced.”