Manatee May Lose Endangered Status in Florida

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
February 26, 2003

In 1999, Florida adopted new standards for listing endangered and threatened species. State officials are reevaluating the status of the endangered manatee, Florida's state marine mammal, based on these new criteria.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the state agency overseeing management of protected species, will vote on changing the manatee's endangered status at the state level later this year. The agency postponed a manatee decision originally scheduled for January 2003. Depending on the vote outcome, Florida's manatees may get a new classification: threatened species. Threatened status is one rung lower than endangered status in species ranking.

Currently, both the state of Florida and the U.S. federal government classify the manatee as endangered. The federal government's endangered classification dates back to 1967.

Because the manatee's status will be evaluated using the new standards, a change in status doesn't necessarily mean that the species is doing better, said Elsa Haubold, research administrator of the manatee research program at Florida Marine Research Institute (FMRI), the scientific arm of the FWC. "But we do feel that the population has improved in the last two decades," she said.

The manatee population was decimated by centuries of extensive hunting. State and federal laws now protect the manatee, but continuing problems such as habitat loss and watercraft collisions threaten the shy marine mammal.

Right now, protections ranging from watercraft speed limits to restricted boating areas attempt to prevent boats and manatees from colliding. The same protections will still apply to manatees if the FWC opts to downgrade the species' status from endangered, Haubold said.

Some have voiced concern about the planned vote to downgrade the marine mammal's status from "endangered" to "threatened." James Powell, director for aquatic conservation at the Wildlife Trust in Sarasota, Florida, said the step might create a false public perception that the manatee is doing well, and could result in less protection in the future.

"The real world state of manatees hasn't changed," said Powell, a biologist who has studied manatees for more than three decades.

The Other Floridians

When Christopher Columbus and his crew spotted manatees in Caribbean waters, the sailors thought they had come upon the mermaids of sea legends. These mermaids, known as the West Indian manatee, range from the southern United States, through the Caribbean and down to northern coast of South America.

Florida has its own subspecies of this marine mammal, which cruises coasts, salt bays, shallow rivers, and canals in search of aquatic plants to devour. Adult manatees weigh in at around 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms), and can eat 10 to 15 percent of their body weight each day.

Patti Thompson, director of science and conservation at Save the Manatee Club in Maitland, said the iconic mammals so closely associated with Florida reflect the state's personality. "They're very laid-back. They act like Floridians," she said.

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