MIAMI — Florida's gentle manatees are the focus of sharp debate over plans to downgrade their protective status from "endangered" to "threatened."
State wildlife officials say their plan reflects the aquatic mammal's successful comeback from the brink of extinction.
But environmentalists and other critics say it is all a charade aimed at placating boaters and pro-development industry groups that complain about what they view as excessive regulations to protect the manatee and other wildlife.
The downgrade would not immediately reduce protections for the manatee. But the move could help boaters and residents fight slow-speed zones, limits on dock building, and other restrictions.
The key issue is how well manatees are doing.
"People are being tricked into believing that these species are doing better than they are," says Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. Mr. Rose says rather than working toward establishing a sustainable breeding population of manatees, the state has simply rewritten its regulations to make it harder for struggling wildlife to qualify for the highest level of state protection. "Sea turtles will be next," he says.
Officials with the state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission dispute the charge that they are favoring development and boating interests at the expense of manatees.
"The recovery of the manatee is pretty well established to the point that threatened is the proper classification," says Henry Cabbage, a commission spokesman. "This is a success story. It is something we ought to be celebrating."
Despite the state move, the federal government still lists the manatee as endangered.
A state survey conducted two weeks ago reported finding 2,812 manatees over a three-day period. The number is down from the record 3,300 animals counted in 2001, but it is more than double the 1,267 manatees found 16 years ago when Florida began conducting the annual aerial survey. At the same time, state scientists have reported that 416 manatees were discovered dead last year – the highest proven mortality since 1996 when 416 dead manatees were also documented.
Unlike some aquatic species, manatees do not reproduce quickly. The large marine mammals can live for 60 years, but adult females produce only one calf every three years. "For species with this life-history strategy to persist, adult survival rates need to be high and stable," says the commission's draft Manatee Management Plan.
The plan says the manatee will qualify for "threatened" status rather than "endangered" status as long as there are between 1,250 and 2,500 manatees in Florida.
Manatee advocates say the plan is too risky. The leading cause of death for manatees is collisions with boats and there are more than 1 million registered boats in Florida, with an additional 400,000 out-of-state craft. Those numbers are expected to increase significantly in the years ahead. In addition, coastal development is exploding, limiting manatee habitat and adding pollution pressures to aquatic ecosystems.
The other major factor complicating manatee survival is its inability to live in temperatures lower than 61 degrees F. When temperatures fall below 68 degrees, manatees move to warmer waters, including natural springs and cooling canals at power plants. Some of these plants are expected to shut down in the future. And a sudden, prolonged cold snap in the midst of a warm winter could devastate the population.
State officials say their plan takes all this into consideration.
The move to downgrade the manatee's status was prompted by a 2001 petition filed by Ted Forsgren, head of the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida. At the time the state was considering establishing 115 acres of new marine speed zones and manatee-protection areas. Mr. Forsgren argued the move did not reflect the healthy state of the manatee population.
Chad Holland agrees. The executive director of Standing Watch, a boater advocacy group, says Florida has 684 manatee speed zones. For many boaters, what had been a 20-minute cruise to reach open water now takes an hour because of speed restrictions to protect manatees. "There just doesn't seem to be a good sense of balance between boating rights and boating access and the manatees," he says. "Many of our constituents say they've never even seen a manatee."
The downgrade in protection is designed to undercut public support for manatee protection, says Jerry Phillips, director of the Florida chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "This all sends a message to the public that we are doing a great job, the manatee is on the rebound, therefore we can be a little bit more accommodating."
Mr. Phillips says while the short-term outlook for the manatee is stable, the longer term prospects are troubling.
Manatee advocates say the Florida management plan fails to address known future threats to the manatee, which are substantial and mounting. A realistic threat assessment looking 10 to 20 years ahead would require an endangered listing, they say.
The commission is expected to vote on its management plan in June.