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For manatees' sake, don't relax vigilance

Published April 15, 2007


State and federal officials are moving to downgrade the threat facing the Florida manatee, proposing to classify the species as "threatened," not "endangered." A recent report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the current population, about 3,300, was stable, exhibiting "positive growth" and surviving well "throughout most of the state." Those findings, if accurate, are cause for celebration, and the reaction should be to build on the success, not invite crisis down the road.

In terms of language, the wildlife agency has a point. Manatees in Florida are "not on the brink of extinction," officials said; indeed, their numbers are increasing or stable, except in Southwest Florida, where Red Tide and other factors do heavier damage. But the report failed to put the numbers into a useful context. The agency disregarded the criteria in place to assess the state of the manatee population, which it criticized as flawed. It has no baseline to analyze the species' condition over the life of its protected designation. Officials say they are unaware of the percentage of manatees that are female and what number constitutes the line between "endangered" and "threatened" status.

Florida is poised to make a similar move this year, though state and federal officials insist the move has no environmental drawbacks. Changing the status requires the state to adopt a management plan that officials say better guides manatee protection efforts. But addressing the real dangers - speeding boaters, shoreline development, Red Tide and pollutant outbreaks - requires money, at both the state and local levels. State officials also have no authority to force local governments or private entities to institute the plan. One model in the study shows a 50 percent chance the state's manatee population could dwindle to 500 adults on either coast over the next 100 years. The state and communities will have to remain vigilant to keep that drastic loss from happening.

It makes sense to first close the loopholes on the state's management plan and then debate whether to downgrade the manatee's status. This decision should not hinge on a snapshot of where the species is, but where it stands in the face of a growing human population. What message would reclassifying the manatee's status send to boaters, builders and the public about conservation? If anything stands out in the federal study, it is the number of unknown threats manatees face, and the heavy work governments will need to do to help the species sustain itself. The last thing regulators should do is create conditions that would cause the manatee to ping-pong back onto the critical list.

[Last modified April 14, 2007, 18:15:24]

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