In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to move forward with a manatee reclassification to “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act. However, with unprecedented manatee mortalities in 2013 — more than 582 through the end of April, many because of red tide in Southwest Florida and others dying mysteriously in Brevard County — FWS announced that downlisting plans were on hold.
The Endangered Species Act dictates that FWS base any reclassification decision on five factors. If the answer to any of the questions posed by the five-factor test is “yes,” then FWS cannot downlist. Our review comes up with several “yes” answers that tell us downlisting would be premature.
Is there a present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of habitat or range? Yes: 50 percent of Florida’s manatees depend on artificial sources of water that could fail or disappear; more than 17 percent of manatees use springs habitats that are threatened by over-pumping of the aquifer and degraded water quality.
Is species subject to overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes? No.
Is disease or predation a factor? Manatees have not suffered from widespread disease in the past, but their winter gatherings do leave them susceptible to disease transmission.
Are there inadequate regulatory mechanisms in place outside the ESA? Yes: Tallahassee’s strong anti-environmental slant in recent years has eroded growth management, weakened state environmental and regulatory agencies, and stood in the way of meaningful protections for our waters.
Are other natural or man-made factors affecting its continued existence? Yes: Watercraft, water control structures, marine debris, red tide, climate change, seagrass loss, and cold stress all fall under this category.
Some people argue we have more manatees than we used to, so it’s time for a status change. None of the ESA’s five factors, however, simply considers a population snapshot. Decisions under the ESA are to be made in full consideration of a species’ future. For Florida’s manatees, unfortunately, both the immediate and long-term scenarios indicate perils that make recovery tenuous.