Feds’ manatee-downlisting plan based on faulty data

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Manatees rescued in Key Largo last year were nursed back to health at Miami Seaquarium before being released.
Manatees rescued in Key Largo last year were nursed back to health at Miami Seaquarium before being released. EL NUEVO HERALD

Should the federal government downlist Florida’s venerable manatee from endangered to threatened status? The question has raised a storm of controversy, with Florida environmentalists and manatee admirers battling boating enthusiasts and development interests.

Thursday was the last day for citizens to express their position as the public comment period ended.

Politicians have spoken out. In January, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida and Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, raised strong objections when U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formally announced its plan. Both called the proposal “misguided and premature.” Mr. Buchanan reiterated his position last week, expressing concern that weakened protections will lead to a drop in the creature’s population. We agree there is reason for concern.

The sea cow holds a special place in the hearts of Florida residents. Manatees seek the warmth of South Florida waters in winter. They can be found along the Intracoastal Waterway and the Miami River.

But the FWS contends the mammal, which appeared on the first federal endangered species list almost a half century ago, is no longer jeopardized with extinction. The population increased from 1,200 in 1991 to more than 6,000 in 2015, though biologists who handled the aerial surveys have regularly expressed doubts about the accuracy of the figures.

The agency proposes downlisting the manatee to “threatened” status, but that decision is chiefly based on a computer model lacking in critical information. FWS admits the analysis incorporates outdated data.

The agency’s decision is partially based on adult survival rates only through the winter of 2008-2009, and the analysis also cites reports dating back to 2011-2012, Buchanan notes in his latest letter to FWS.

The computer modeling expert responsible for the project’s conclusions did not include a pair of extensive die-offs, the Tampa Bay Times reported in January. In 2010, 766 manatees perished, mostly during two cold snaps.

That total broke the previous record set only a year earlier, at 429. In 2013, the record soared to 829 deaths. These figures cannot be ignored in the FWS's decision-making process.

The creatures are also susceptible to mass die-offs from toxic red tide algae blooms, figures not included in the computer model. In addition, the computer model does not account for manatee habitat lost to waterfront development. All these flaws punch numerous holes in the study being wrongly cited as justification for the manatee's downgrading.

Not to mention that boaters killed more sea cows in 2015 — 87 — than in 2014. That’s even with speed zones and no-entry zones to protect the mammals.

Florida’s increases in both human population and tourism further endanger manatees, and the downlisting could bring relaxed restrictions on waterfront development and higher boat speed limits.

Boaters and developers have been seeking a manatee downlisting since 1999. A lawsuit filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation in 2014 forced the FWS to act on the organization’s 2012 petitions for a downgrade. Thus, the federal agency forged ahead with a manatee status change. Final action is expected in 2017.

Let’s spare the manatee from the return of past manmade threats.

This editorial first appeared in the Bradenton Herald.