Study says Florida manatees safe for now

Population expected to double in the next 50 years

Florida manatees at Crystal Springs. @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

Biologists say current conservation efforts for Florida’s manatees should suffice to help the marine mammals survive for at least the next 100 years. If resource managers continue to protect manatees and their habitat, there’s less than a half-percent chance the population would drop below 500 individuals, the level that would threaten long-term survival.

The new study was done by the  US Geological Survey and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. It found that Florida’s manatee population is likely to gradually double over the next 50 years and then level off. Over time, environmental and habitat changes will probably cause manatees to become less abundant in South Florida and more numerous in North Florida, but the population as a whole will remain high.

“Today the Florida manatees’ numbers are high. Adult manatees’ longevity is good, and the state has available habitat to support a population that is continuing to grow,” said USGS research ecologist Michael C. Runge, lead author of the USGS report, “Status and Threats Analysis for the Florida Manateey. “Still, new threats could emerge, or existing threats could interact in unexpected ways,” Runge said. “Managers need to remain vigilant to keep manatee populations viable over the long haul.”

The Florida manatee is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee. It was one of the first animals to listed as endangered when the federal Endangered Species Act went into effect in 1973. In the mid-1970s only about 1,000 individuals survived in Florida. But over the last 40 years, boat speed regulations, habitat protection and other measures have helped the population rebound. The most recent count, in early 2017, tallied 6,620 manatees in Florida waters.

On March 30, 2017 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is charged with protecting plants and animals covered by the Endangered Species Act, announced a final decision changing the West Indian manatee’s status (including the Florida subspecies) from endangered to threatened.

Scientists of the Sirenia Project, based at the USGS’ Wetland and Aquatic Research Center in Gainesville, Florida, have studied manatees since the 1970s, photographing more than 3,000 animals and identifying them from each individual’s unique pattern of propeller scars and other markings. From a database of more than 750,000 manatee photographs, satellite tracking, genetic information and other data, the USGS researchers and their FWRI partners have developed a detailed understanding of how manatees interact with their environment.

At USGS’ Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, endangered species experts feed this information into a computer model that assesses how Florida manatee populations are doing and how they’re likely to fare in coming decades. The model is updated periodically, incorporating insights from experts and new information about changing conditions.

Continued protection is warranted because the same threats persist, including  fatal collisions with watercraft, and the loss of warm-water habitats that provide them with refuge during the winter. (Manatees lack an insulating layer of fat, so water colder than about 70 degrees can kill them.) The new analysis projects that mortality due to red tide will become an equally significant threat, if red tides are more frequent and more intense in coming decades.

The researchers tested many scenarios, some likely and some unlikely, to see whether they could find a set of circumstances that would trigger a significant statewide decline in the manatee population.

“If the rate of mortality from watercraft collisions were to double, the population’s resilience would be compromised,” said Runge. In that scenario, the risk that either the Atlantic or Gulf populations could fall to 500 animals was about four percent, he said. “We looked at all the other pressures people have mentioned, and we did not find any combination of threats that raised the risk of a decline to fewer than 500 animals on either coast above nine percent.”

The next 100 years are likely to see manatee populations shift around the state in response to regional environmental changes, the analysis finds. For example, some southeast Florida power plants are expected to shut down over the next 40-50 years, and if they do, manatees will lose the warm water refuges created in the plants’ discharge canals. Manatees in southwest Florida are likely to be increasingly affected by red tide and may also lose some warm water refuges. So southeast and southwest Florida may see their manatee populations decline.

Those losses will be balanced by increased manatee numbers in northeast and northwest Florida, where warm natural springs are capable of hosting more manatees, the analysis concludes.

“Manatee populations will continue to face threats,” Runge said. “But if these threats continue to be managed effectively, manatees will be an integral and iconic part of Florida’s coastal ecosystems through the coming century.”

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