Florida’s manatees are still in danger

Flamingos, palm trees and manatees. All three are living, breathing symbols of Florida. And they should be protected.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced plans to reclassify the West Indian manatee, which includes the Florida species, from “endangered” to a less dire “threatened.” Bad idea.

Indeed, things have improved: The Florida manatee population is now about 6,300, up from 1,200 in 1991.

However, FWS should not let excitement over the manatees’ rebound become the very thing that brings about their undoing again.

First, the FWS proposal comes under growing pressure from developers and the boating industry who have long complained that protective slow-speed zones along areas like the Intracoastal Waterway and canals across the state are too strict.

Saturday, in Orlando, FWS will host the one and only public hearing on the manatees’ classification. It’s odd — and deliberate? — that no hearing will be held in South Florida where there would be loud opposition to stripping the marine mammal of its endangered designation. Given that the public has until April 7 to comment on the proposal, we urge FWS schedule at least two other hearings, one in North Florida and another, of course, to the south.

South Floridians should still make themselves heard by contacting state lawmakers and also leaving comments on the FWS website at www.regulations.gov. Although manatees are found in other states, they live year-round only in Florida, where they have become a lucrative draw for eco-tourists.

Leading the opposition to downlisting manatees is the Save the Manatee Club, a 35-year-old organization founded by singer Jimmy Buffett and former Gov. Bob Graham. The Maitland-based group rightly fears the back-slapping over manatees’ strong numbers will be a doubled-edged sword.

Dr. Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation for the nonprofit, told the Editorial Board that declassification presents a dangerous step in undoing all the successes.“The population has grown, but the manatees are not yet out of the woods,” Dr. Tripp said.

The effort to downgrade manatees’ status has been spearheaded by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian legal-advocacy group that petitioned the federal government over the designation. It is known to represent the interests of landowners and developers, who currently must consider the impact on the marine mammals in any development on coastal areas.

Although the manatee population has increased, Dr. Tripp says the mammals still are under attack on several fronts: Florida’s human population — especially those in boats — remains the biggest killer of manatees. Between 350 and 400 die a year; seagrass die-off affects thousands of acres in Florida Bay alone and red-tide blooms have diminished manatees’ food supply.

The National Marine Manufacturers Association reported that boat sales could increase 8 percent in the state this year. Already, at the just-completed Miami International Boat Show, many new boats were sold and will soon cut through Florida waters. And with new energy policies, the potential loss of nuclear plants, where the mammals spend the winter months swimming in warm discharge water, is another threat to their way of life. Does it sound like manatees are set for life? Hardly.

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