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Tough Times for Treasured Manatees

Species may be removed from endangered list

All Animals magazine, March/April 2015

by Tanya Mulford

Photo: Alex Mustard/NPL/Minden Pictures

Each summer, tourists flock to Florida waterways to watch and photograph manatees. The state is chock full of souvenirs devoted to the dark gray, whiskered and pleasingly plump “sea cow”—manatee license plates, manatee plush toys, manatee T-shirts and manatee shot glasses. There’s even a Manatee County.

Among other species, too, the animals appear popular. Biologists have observed alligators giving way to or swimming peacefully past manatees. Sharks have been known to leave them alone as well.

And yet, despite it all, manatees are still struggling to survive. In 2012, a property and boating interest group, resentful of speed limits in coastal bays and rivers, filed a legal petition seeking to have manatees removed from the list of species classified as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The petition pushed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propose slashing protections for the state’s manatees, who live in estuaries, bays and rivers along the Florida coast. The group claims that manatees are doing well and don’t need the current level of protection. The facts don’t bear out that claim: After four decades of federal protection, only about 4,830 manatees swim Florida waters.

These gentle giants—manatees can grow up to 10 feet long and 1,000 pounds—have struggled to survive the damaging effects of human activities for centuries, says Sharon Young, HSUS marine issues field director.

With threats to manatees increasing, this is no time to cut back on protections.

Since 1972, the federal Endangered Species Act has required the Fish and Wildlife Service to help manatee populations recover. The agency has placed limits on coastal development, boat speeds and other human activity in areas that are considered critical habitat.

But fishing, boating and construction interests have continually challenged that protection, leaving manatees with limited access to natural springs or other places with warm water. To avoid freezing to death in winter, around 60 percent of Florida manatees now rely on warmer waters near power plants—all of which are slated to be closed in the next 50 years, according to a recent study.

And despite the speed limits, boat strikes remain a lethal threat to the slow-moving animals, killing 73 manatees in 2013, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Young reports that up to 80 percent of manatees bear scars from collisions.

Serious threats continue to emerge, as well. Record-breaking cold snaps and pollution-fed algae blooms (or red tides) contributed to the deaths of 1,600 Florida manatees over the past three years. These algae blooms don’t just poison manatees; they also destroy their food. More than 47,000 acres of sea grass beds were killed in the Indian River Lagoon area alone. Water resources may also become scarce: Cattle ranchers recently applied for a permit to pull 1.12 million gallons of water a day near a manatee habitat in the St. John’s River region.

See what you can do to help protect manatees »

With threats to their survival increasing, Young says this is no time for the federal government to cut back on protection. Many agree with her: In the two months after the Fish and Wildlife Service announced its proposal, The HSUS delivered 42,199 written objections from supporters across the country.

Young notes the species is a national treasure protected by federal law and a major tourist draw to a state that depends heavily on tourism. “Somebody in Iowa has just as much at stake as somebody in Florida.”

It will be months before the Fish and Wildlife Service announces its decision. If it does side with boating interests, Young says, there will still be time for the American public—during the public comment period that will follow—to once again show its love for the manatee.”

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