Comeback spurs plan to downlist manatees

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Manatees gathering at a freshwater spring in Florida. @bberwyn photo.

Protection efforts pay off for the marine mammals

Staff Report

Federal biologists say manatees are on the road to recovery and they’re proposed to downlist the species from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

When scientists started tracking the gentle marine mammals, the Florida population was estimated at about 1,200. In the last 25 years that population has grown to about 6,300, with 13,000 across the species’ range, including Puerto Rico, Mexico, Central America, South America, and Greater and Lesser Antilles.

“The manatee’s recovery is incredibly encouraging and a great testament to the conservation actions of many,” said Cindy Dohner, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service southeast region.

Downlisting the manatee will not affect existing federal protections, but reflects the fact that the species is not in danger of extinction in most of its range anymore. The USFWS will take public comment on the plan through April 7.

“The manatee is one of the most charismatic and instantly recognizable species,” said the Interior Department’s Michael Bean. “It’s hard to imagine the waters of Florida without them, but that was the reality we were facing before manatees were listed under the Endangered Species Act. While there is still more work to be done to fully recover manatee populations, their numbers are climbing and the threats to the species’ survival are being reduced,” Bean said.

Currently there are more than 50 protected areas for manatees, and management tools like retrofitted water control structures have resulted in significant decreases in manatee fatalities. Additionally, power companies are working cooperatively with federal and state conservation managers to address warm water outflows at wintering manatee congregation sites. Florida counties have made significant progress in developing and implementing manatee protection plans and siting boat facilities to reduce boater impacts on manatees.

The Service works with the Coast Guard to enforce manatee protection areas and minimize collisions with high-speed boats. Significant advances have also been made in reducing the threat from entanglement in fishing gear. Additionally, manatee rescue, rehabilitation and release organizations help save dozens of manatees yearly, with a majority successfully released back into the wild.

‘As part of its balanced approach to the recovery of the manatee, the Service recognizes that, even as it proposes to update the manatee’s status under the ESA with this proposal, it may at times need to strengthen protection for the species in specific local areas,” Dohner added. “For example, the Service is reviewing comments on a proposal to establish greater protection for manatees at Three Sisters Springs, which is part of the agency’s Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge north of Tampa, Florida.”

The manatee also remains protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The finding and additional information is available online at the Federal eRulemaking Portal:  http://www.regulations.gov/.  In the Keyword box, enter Docket Number FWS-R4-ES-2015-0178.  Background information on the Florida and Antillean sub-species is available at http://www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/mammal/manatee/.

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