Feds to reclassify manatees from 'endangered' to 'threatened'
Public will have 90 days to respond to change
TALLAHHASSEE, Fla. – Sea cows took decades to emerge from a sea of troubles.
Within a year, federal wildlife officials plan to reclassify the long-embattled Florida manatee from "endangered" to the less serious status of "threatened."
6 News partner Florida Today said on Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to publish a proposed rule to reclassify the species. The public would then have 90 days to weigh in on the change. Then the service expects to publish the final rule to reclassify within a year.
"Based on the best available scientific information, we believe the manatee is no longer in danger of extinction," Michael Oetker, deputy regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, said at a press conference Thursday at Miami Seaquarium.
The announcement comes after decades of studies and debate over whether Florida's most iconic creature should drop a peg from "endangered," a status the marine mammal has held since America's original list of endangered species was created in 1967.
"Endangered" means the species is at risk of going extinct. "Threatened" means they no longer are at imminent risk of extinction but could become so in the foreseeable future.
Wildlife officials took on a celebratory tone during Thursday's announcement, while assuring the change wouldn't dismantle slow-speed zones or lessen other manatee protections. But conservationists worry the reclassification would slide the manatee down a slippery slope of deregulation that would eventually gut vital protections before serious threats to the species have been addressed.
It's unclear what exactly the status change will mean, as boating and manatee advocacy groups continue to clash over what the rules on Florida's waters should be.
The manatee's listing status governs how state and federal and state agencies handle boating speed limits, dock and dredging permits and access to areas manatees frequent.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission posted most of Brevard's manatee zones in the early 1990s, late 2002 and early 2003. The zones now cover 83 square miles — about a third — of the Indian River Lagoon and its tributaries in Brevard.
The zones require boats to go slow enough to prevent excessive wake, about 5 mph to 7 mph for most vessels.
Boaters face a $92 ticket for speeding through the zones.
FWC officials expressed support for the reclassification.
Beyond the Endangered Species Act, manatees receive additional protections under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, making it difficult to undo boating, permitting and other rules that protect them, federal officials said.
But Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation for the nonprofit Save the Manatee Club, fears the reclassification would loosen permitting rules to allow close to 100 manatees statewide to be killed, injured or harassed annually, what federal regulators call "takes."
"You open the door potentially for people to write rules to 'take' manatees," Tripp said.
"Some people are definitely going to feel emboldened on this," Tripp said. "They're also going to have a harder time coming out with any new protections."
Manatee advocates also worry about threats yet to be sufficiently dealt with, including seagrass die-offs and toxic algae blooms and the runoff pollution that fuels them.
Sea cows face too many long-term uncertainties to change their status now, conservationists say, and 6,063 manatees — the statewide aerial count last winter — are not enough of a buffer against those threats. More than 13,000 manatees are thought to exist within the animal's range, which includes Puerto Rico, Mexico, Central America, South America and Greater and Lesser Antilles.
The government has no concrete plan for weaning manatees off the warm-water discharges from power plants that keep manatees farther north in the winter, subjecting them to dying from cold stress, Tripp warned. "This is the biggest issue that this animal is going to face," she said.
Save the Manatee Club may challenge a "threatened" reclassification.
"Everything's on the table," Tripp said.
Federal regulators said current protections must remain to sustain the recovery.
"It's really a success story," Jim Valade, Florida manatee recovery coordinator for the wildlife service, said of the proposed reclassification. "It's like taking manatees out of intensive care and putting them in a regular care facility."
In July 2014, the wildlife service announced the agency would move forward on a status review for the manatee, in response to a 2012 petition to reclassify the species, from "endangered" to "threatened."
The service's announcement of the status review came just two months after a libertarian law foundation sued the agency over the matter. In May 2014, the The Pacific Legal Foundation sued the wildlife service for continuing to list the manatee as "endangered," despite the agency's own research that said the species should be reclassified as "threatened."
The Pacific Legal Foundation pursued the lawsuit on behalf of Save Crystal River Inc, a nonprofit citizens group concerned about new manatee idle-speed rules and expanded manatee refuge areas in Kings Bay in Citrus County.
As supporting information, PLF cited the wildlife service's 2007 West Indian Manatee Five-Year Review which had recommended the status change. PLF also cites a stock assessment by the Fish and Wildlife Service in January 2014 that estimated the minimum current manatee population at 4,976 manatees, including 4,834 in Florida.
Citing budget and manpower issues, the wildlife service had balked at reclassifying the manatee. It also was busy responding to PLF's 2006 lawsuit that forced the agency to review the listing status of hundreds of other species, as required by the Endangered Species Act, including 89 species in Florida.
“The good news is that the manatee is increasing and federal officials are finally acknowledging this fact,” said PLF Attorney Christina Martin. "The bad news is that federal officials took so long to accept the good news about the manatee’s improvement."
Last February, state spotters counted a record 6,063 manatees in Florida, topping the previous record set in 2010 by almost 1,000 manatees. The same month, firefighters in Satellite Beach had to scramble to rescue 19 manatees that had wiggled up into stormwater pipes in front of City Hall.
Opponents of slow-speed boating zones and other manatee restrictions say record counts in recent years bolster the case for reclassifying to "threatened" and easing some boating and permitting restrictions.
On Tuesday, Brevard County Commission Vice Chair Curt Smith plans to propose that Brevard County Commission petition FWC to "immediately begin rule-making procedures to remove unreasonable speed restrictions throughout the county, and to update Brevard manatee protection plan through a fair and transparent process."
Members of Citizens for Florida's Waterways, a boating advocacy group in Brevard County, say the manatee should be delisted as "recovered," which would open the door to removing slow zones and other protections.
They have been pushing for years for the state to allow 25 mph corridors through some manatee zones.
Some boating and marine industry groups also want an end to the warm water discharges from power plants, to restore manatees' natural migration. Warm water from the power plants has for five decades trained too many manatees to winter too far north, they say, denuding the lagoon bottom of seagrass, at the expense of other marine life.
Boating advocates said Thursday's announcement was a victory and cause for celebration of the species' recovery.
"Good news we’ve waited a long time to hear," said Steven Webster, a government liaison for Citizens for Florida's Waterways, a boating advocacy group based in Brevard. "Boaters have been an easy target for decades, distracting from the real issues facing manatees and our waterways."
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