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Manatee may be taken off Florida endangered list

27th May 2003

Planet Ark

MIAMI - Even as an endangered species, with protections afforded only a handful of other creatures on Earth, the Florida manatee loses up to 10 percent of its number every year, many crushed or slashed by boats.

Now a move is afoot to "downlist" the manatee from "endangered" to "threatened" in Florida, heightening a long battle between the marine industry and conservationists.
A decision on downlisting by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission this week would have little practical impact on manatee protections because the lumbering marine mammal would remain on the federal endangered list.

But manatee advocates say it would send a dangerous message to the public that the sea cow is safe from extinction.

"The outlook for manatees is still dire," said Patti Thompson, director of science for the Save the Manatee Club, which fights to protect the estimated 3,000 manatees left in Florida waters.

Conservationists and boating interests have squabbled for years over how many manatees are enough and how manatees and boats - there are nearly a million registered in the state - can co-exist in Florida's crowded waterways.

The sluggish, herbivorous marine giants, which date back 45 million years and grow to an average of about 10 feet (3 metres) long and 1,000 pounds (454 kg), are frequently crushed by boats or gashed by propellers as they surface to breathe. Many adult manatees bear jagged scars on their backs.


Last year, the state recorded 305 manatee deaths, about 10 percent of the current population. Of those, 95, were caused by boats. Natural causes claimed 59.

To protect the manatee, the state instituted speed zones on miles of Florida's waterways, forcing boaters to slow to as little as 5 mph (8 kph) to avoid hurting unseen manatees lolling at or just below the surface.

The Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, a fishers' group, petitioned the commission to reevaluate the endangered status of the manatee, arguing that it did not meet new criteria for that designation. It cited research showing manatees are not just holding on, but growing in number.

"We've never asked for rollbacks in protection measures," CCA executive director Ted Forsgren said. "We've only asked for some common sense ... We are seeing a recovery of manatees, and all the extreme measures are unwarranted."

The Commission, meeting May 28-30 in Kissimmee, Florida, is to decide whether to reclassify the manatee. Its research staff recommended downlisting on grounds that the manatee does not qualify for "endangered" status under current state criteria.

To be endangered, a species would have to face the possibility of an 80 percent decline in population in the next three generations, or 45 years. State scientists have decided the manatee could face a 50 percent decline in the next 45 years, making them "threatened," not "endangered."

Manatee advocates say the state criteria are all wrong for the manatee, a long-living creature that reaches sexual maturity late and reproduces slowly. Mature females generally give birth every 2-5 years and the gestation period is a year.

Story by Jim Loney