But manatees may benefit from global warming
HOMOSASSA SPRINGS, Florida––After a record 104 Florida manatees were killed by speeding boaters in 2016, one might almost expect the March 30, 2017 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announcement that Florida manatees are no longer officially endangered to be followed by a shout of “April Fool!”
But there will be no shouts of “April Fool!” from appointees of the Donald Trump administration.
Downlisting pushed by far right
Rather, the Pacific Legal Foundation, promoting since 1973 the anti-environmental regulation views implemented by Trump, exulted that “Federal officials finally brought the regulation of the manatee into line with the latest science, by reclassifying it from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act.”
Manatees have also been considered “endangered” under Florida legislation, but because the Florida endangered species list replicates the federal list, manatees will automatically be downlisted under the Florida law too, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission executive director Nick Wiley told media.
“The relisting recognizes a population rebound by the West Indian manatee, a native of the Florida coastline whose range extends from the southeastern United States through the Caribbean basin,” reported Ian Simpson for Global Energy News.
“Florida boaters are going to take this as a signal that they can increase their speed in manatee zones,” Florida Sierra Club director Frank Jackalone told Simpson.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that there are now about 6,620 Florida manatees in the U.S., mostly in Florida waters with some venturing into adjacent states, and about 6,300 manatees at large from the Mexican Gulf Coast to northern Brazil and the Caribbean.
Global warming may be helping Florida manatees to extend their summer range, as they are now often seen as far north as Chesapeake Bay, but the species is highly susceptible to shock from cold weather, which for manatees means the water temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
No year-round Florida manatee populations are known to exist even as far north as South Carolina.
Along with the 104 manatees known to have been killed by boats in 2016, 416 manatees were found dead of other causes or undetermined causes, which may include collisions with boats that did not leave clear signs of an impact inflicting mortal injury. Other known causes include exposure to toxic algal blooms and cold snaps.
Florida manatees often weather spells of unusually cold weather by congregating around the warm discharges of used cooling water from electrical generating stations. But as the Florida power generating industry has consolidated in recent years, the number of water discharge points has contracted.
Are manatee numbers really up?
Proponents of downlisting Florida manatees have long contended that finding more dead manatees means the manatee population is growing.
But whether the Florida manatee population has actually increased during the 40 years the species has enjoyed federal protection is still keenly debated.
“Manatees have been classified as endangered since the first federal endangered species list was issued in 1967,” recalled Tampa Bay Times staff writer Craig Pittman, whose 2009 book Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species is widely considered the definitive political and cultural history of manatees.
Manatees “were included on that list,” Pittman explained, “not because of their numbers, which were unknown, but because of the threats they faced from being clobbered by speeding boats or having their habitats destroyed by waterfront development,” both still constant threats.
Save Crystal River Inc. vs. Save The Manatees
“Florida’s boating and building interests have been trying for 18 years to knock manatees off the endangered species list, in hopes of blocking further restrictions on boating speeds and development,” continued Pittman. “No one succeeded until the Pacific Legal Foundation sued to have the manatee downlisted on behalf of Save Crystal River Inc., a nonprofit that feared more federal regulations in the area,” according to an explanation given to Pittman by Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Christina Martin.
“Federal officials acknowledged their decision was spurred by the Pacific Legal Foundation,” Pittman added. “And it’s likely to lead to a lawsuit by the Save the Manatee Club to overturn it. Although federal officials promised changing the manatees’ classification won’t weaken their protections, Pat Rose of the Save the Manatee Club predicted this will be followed by a concerted effort to roll back habitat protection and other measures.”
Speedboats vs. manatee tourism
Why? Assessed Pittman, “The Pacific Legal Foundation represents a group from Citrus County — where manatee-related tourism has been a mainstay of the economy — that dislikes some recent manatee protection regulations there. Its goal has been to prevent any more.”
The Save The Manatee Club offered a harsher perspective.
The Pacific Legal Foundation petition driving the downlisting “is the latest attempt by the radical Save Crystal River group to undermine all protections for manatees,” the Save The Manatee Club charged.
“Remember, this is the group that petitioned the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission twice to remove all protections for manatees in Kings Bay –– a critical refuge for the species. Both petition efforts were denied because they had no merit or basis in fact.”
“Hope instead of science”
Biologist James “Buddy” Powell, who has researched manatees for more than 40 years, told Pittman that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decision likewise “seems to be based on hope” rather than science.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took this momentous step the day after celebrating ‘Manatee Appreciation Day’ on its social media accounts,” Pittman noted, adding that “Nearly 87,000 comments and petition signatures opposing the change were submitted during the 90-day public comment process. Only 72 people said they were in favor of it.”