tampabay.com

Too many manatees are dying already

By JANICE NEARING
Published February 5, 2007


Manatees had a lot of people watching their backs recently during Operation Mermaid.

Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, together with officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, patrolled 11 Florida counties to educate the boating community about ways they can help protect the endangered marine mammals. Officers talked to thousands of boaters, hundreds were given boating citations or warnings and some were charged.

Leaders at Save the Manatee Club praised the FWC for its expert coordination and initiative of the awareness campaign.

Efforts such as this are especially critical now after the deadliest year ever documented for manatees. In 2006, 416 manatees died, with at least 86 deaths as a result of boat strikes, tying the second-highest year on record.

"Last year's high mortality only reinforces the overall trend we've been seeing in recent years," said Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club.

The question is whether such great efforts to protect the manatee population will continue at this level. The FWC's recently released draft of its Manatee Management Plan, which is the final step in lowering the manatee's classification on the state's imperiled species list, allows a 30 percent decline in the population over three generations.

"Such a catastrophic loss is effectively being sanctioned by the state and will be absolutely unacceptable to Floridians and people around the world who care about these unique and defenseless animals," said Rose. "And since the plan is geared toward avoiding greater than a 30 percent loss rather than attaining an optimum sustainable population, it will be impossible to hold the state accountable for protecting manatees from escalating human-related threats such as watercraft strikes, loss of warm-water habitat, and destruction of habitat associated with development and climate change."

Conservationists argue that such a drastic loss in the population will be viewed by the FWC as progress toward species recovery, as its management plan states, so it follows that the agency can significantly roll back protective regulations and still be able to declare success by simply avoiding a greater than 30 percent population loss.

In the past 10 years, more than 3,100 manatees have died from all causes, with more than 760 of those animals killed by boats. Although Save the Manatee Club praises law enforcement initiatives such as Operation Mermaid, and encourages the public to support additional funding for enforcement on the water, the concern remains about future plans to protect Florida's manatees.

"The population can't possibly continue to sustain mortality of this kind," Rose said. "The FWC should give manatees the highest level of state protection, and certainly now is not the time to be lowering the manatee's imperiled status to threatened.

"Contrary to the Manatee Management Plan and recent statements made by the chairman of the FWC, Rodney Barreto, who would have you believe erroneously that manatees are doing better than ever, the big question is, if a 30 percent population decline is acceptable to the FWC, what will be their motivation to reduce the present level of mortality?" he asked.

The club encourages the public to contact Gov. Charlie Crist and, in light of the record-setting manatee mortality and a management plan that is critically deficient, urge him to use his influence to get the FWC to revisit the manatee's reclassification to a lesser imperiled status. His e-mail address is charlie.crist@myflorida.com or he can be reached by phone at 850 488-7146.

Editor's note: Janice Nearing is director of public relations for Save the Manatee Club, 500 N Maitland Ave., Maitland. Call (407) 539-0990 or visit www.savethemanatee.org.