By CRAIG PITTMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- State wildlife officials were peppered with the questions during a recent House Natural Resources Committee meeting.
"How many manatees does it take to get off the endangered species list?" asked a Democratic state representative.
"Where is that number?" chimed in the Republican committee chairman. "Why don't we already have that number? People are tired of this."
Manatees have been on state and federal endangered species lists for decades. But as state and federal agencies clamp down on boaters and waterfront development to protect the manatee, opponents of the restrictions are questioning whether the manatees really need so much protection.
Fueling the debate is a biologist's report that argues that manatees are no longer endangered. Former state Marine Fisheries Commission chairman Thomas Fraser contends in his report that the manatee population is "growing at a healthy rate," and there is "virtually no real probability of the manatee becoming extinct in the next 100 years due to boat interactions."
Fraser, paid about $10,000 for his report by a sport-fishing group called Coastal Conservation Association Florida, presented his findings at a state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting last week.
Manatee advocates attacked Fraser's report as full of holes. Three marine mammal specialists said the manatee remains in peril because so many are killed each year by speeding boats -- 78 last year alone. They said the number of boat-related deaths will have to be reduced to between four and seven before manatees are out of danger.
Still, Fraser's report struck a chord with at least one member of the wildlife commission.
"Looking at the figures I see, I don't see the manatee headed for extinction," said Commissioner Quinton Hedgepeth of Miami. "We may need to do something as far as a study to determine the status of the manatee now."
But environmental groups contend the manatee should remain on the endangered list, not only because of the high number killed by boats but also because manatee habitat is being wiped out by waterfront development.
"The marine industry and boaters are putting way too much emphasis on numbers," said Save the Manatee Club director Judith Vallee.
So far, no one has formally petitioned the state and federal wildlife agencies to launch the process needed to change the manatee's legally protected status. Ron Pritchard, president of the boating group Citizens for Florida's Waterways, said he would bring up the idea at a boaters' summit meeting this weekend in Melbourne.
Unless the government agrees that the manatee is no longer endangered, "there's no end to all this regulation," said Ted Forsgren, director of Coastal Conservation Association Florida.
Boaters have been grumbling about the manatee's endangered status for years. But they became more open about challenging the status after two things happened in January.
First, federal officials and manatee advocates settled a lawsuit with an agreement to impose new restrictions on boating and development throughout Florida, in an effort to cut down on the number of manatees killed by boats.
A few days later, biologists counted 3,276 manatees statewide, the highest count since the census began 10 years ago and an increase of more than 1,000 over the previous year's count.
Boaters seized on the increase as evidence that the new restrictions imposed by federal settlement were unnecessary, although biologists always warn that the winter count is not a reliable index to the health of the species.
The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is on the verge of approving a similar settlement following an April 19 public hearing in Orlando. Based on Fraser's report, Forsgren's group is recommending that before imposing new restrictions, the commission should "adopt a clear and measurable biological goal which equates to a healthy and sustainable population of manatees."
However, state officials say they do not expect to downgrade the manatee's endangered status until they have enough data to say that they have met three criteria: The average rate of adult manatee survival is above 90 percent; the average number of adult females with calves in winter is 40 percent; and the statewide manatee population is stable or increasing, with a target rate of 4 percent growth.