A bittersweet Endangered Species Day
Friday, May 17, is celebrated as Endangered Species Day, and our county’s namesake, the endangered manatee, has narrowly escaped being taken off the endangered species list.
The reason, however, is nothing to celebrate.
More than 582 Florida manatees have died in the first four months of this year from a particularly bad stretch of red tide and other causes.
That’s 12 percent of the total manatee population in the state based on available statistics.
No one is sure exactly how many manatees there are in Florida, since the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has not conducted the annual statewide manatee synoptic survey for the past two years. The surveyors count manatees in cold weather when they congregate near power plant warm water outflows and in warm, shallow springs, and the last two winters have been too mild. The last survey in 2011 listed 4,834 manatees, and even that’s a guess.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had planned to downlist manatees from endangered to threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, which is 40 years old this year, but has temporarily put the plan on hold because of the high number of 2013 deaths.
The agency uses five questions to decide whether to keep a species on the list or not. If the answer to any of them is yes, then it cannot downlist them, according to Dr. Katie Tripp, director of Science and Conservation at the Save the Manatee Club.
Three of the five questions have yes answers, she says.
“Is there a present or threatened destruction, modification or curtailment of species’ habitat or range?” Yes, she says, for a number of reasons, including that more than 17 percent of the state’s manatees swim in springs, which are threatened by over-pumping of the aquifer for drinking water, and that waterfront development continues, facilitating more boat traffic that increases manatee collisions.
“Are there inadequate regulatory mechanisms in place outside the federal Endangered Species Act?” Yes, she says, because while the state does have some protection for manatees, the marine mammals are impacted by Florida legislators who have weakened state environmental and regulatory agencies.
“Are other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence?” Yes, she says, such as watercraft strikes, dams and locks, marine debris, red tide, climate change, seagrass loss and cold stress deaths.
Two questions have no answers: “Is the species subject to overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific or educational purposes?” and “Is disease or predation a factor?”
But the balance is tipping against Florida’s manatees, both in the immediate future and for the long-term outlook, Tripp said.
Still, there is something to celebrate – without the Endangered Species Act, we might not have any manatees left at all.
Facebook, tweet or e-mail blast about manatees on Endangered Species Day on Friday or visit Snooty at the Parker Aquarium in Bradenton or Hugh and Buffett at the Mote Marine Aquarium in Sarasota. Wear your Manatee High School T-shirt. Or pass this column along to a visitor and gain another friend for the manatee.