Manatee Deaths Up, Protections Down

Many manatees are marked with deep scars due to boat strikes.

Despite an extremely high manatee mortality rate in 2005, wildlife scientists in Florida have proposed a downlisting of the species from "endangered" to "threatened" under state law.

Almost 400 manatees died last year—the second highest toll in history, not much lower than the record-setting 415 fatalities in 1996. This year is not looking any better for the beleaguered animals, as the total of 48 manatee deaths in January was a third higher than the number for the same month in 2005.

Though 10 died in January of natural causes and six died of cold stress, eight were killed by watercraft and the other half died of still-unknown causes that could be human-related. Last year, 20 percent of manatee deaths were the result of a serious episode of red tide along several areas of the Gulf Coast, and an equal percentage were caused by boat strikes.

Meanwhile, existing protections are in jeopardy for Florida's manatees, whose population is reported to hover around 3,000. The state's five-member scientific panel, appointed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, was asked to consider the "current and projected size and locations of the animals" before coming to its recommendation that the state protection be lowered.

Population census results are often used to suggest the number of manatees has increased. However, methods used to collect population data have improved over the years, permitting observers to see more manatees. Scientists caution that this should not be confused with an actual increase in the population. The hazards the animals face have not diminished over the years. In fact, lead panel scientist Elisa Haubold admitted that the manatee population is expected to drop 50 percent over the next half-century, due to factors such as habitat loss, watercraft collisions and more red tide algae. Still, she claimed manatees do not meet the state's criteria for an endangered species.

Gentle Florida manatees are experiencing higher mortality rates, yet legislation on both the state and federal level aims to strip them of their protections - Photo by FWS

On a federal level, the animals would keep their endangered status—but some legislators are trying to gut those protections as well. Last year, Representative Adam Putnam (R-FL) added language to exclude manatees from the Marine Mammal Protection Act as an amendment to the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act (a bill that promises to severely weaken the Endangered Species Act). Unfortunately, the bill and the amendment passed in the House.

If adopted by the Senate, Putnam's devastating amendment would effectively allow almost any individual dock permits to be approved—despite their proximity to manatee waters. The permits could only be denied if the particular docks in question would harm the entire population of manatees. It is the building of these docks that has caused an increase in boat strikes over the years, because it creates additional traffic. The structures also contribute to further destruction of manatee habitats.

The gentle manatee needs increased protection, not life-threatening policies that will further the species' decline. Please write your Members of Congress to urge them to oppose any legislation that would reduce protection for endangered species, including these marine mammals.