By Michael Markarian
Ask any child to name an endangered sea creature, and not every kid would list the manatee first, but that species would make almost every top 10 list. These gentle giants, who long ago inspired the mermaid myth, can grow to more than 1,000 pounds and 10 feet in length.
Sometimes called sea cows, they are plant-eaters, and spend their time grazing in shallow waters, slowly swimming about three to five miles per hour, making them especially vulnerable to boat strikes and other human threats.
Things could get much worse for these iconic sea creatures, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering reducing protections for manatees under the Endangered Species Act. The move comes in response to a petition from a Florida property rights group, which says it’s fighting so-called excessive government regulation and wants to roll back manatee protections that place restrictions on boating and other water-based activities.
Manatees have been listed as an endangered species since 1967. Although their population has grown since that time, the species still faces grave dangers. Cold snaps remain deadly to manatees, and many of the warm water springs that are key to their survival in winter are no longer accessible. The warm discharge water from power plants, to which they have turned, won’t be there forever as aging power plants are slated to go offline.
About one quarter of manatee deaths each year are caused by boats hitting them. More than 80 percent of manatees, in fact, haves scars from prior collisions. Tragically, because so many of them are injured, it is their scar patterns that enable scientists to identify and track manatees. If they survive a collision, these long-lived creatures can bear scars from generations of boat strikes.
Red tide—a harmful algae—also kills dozens of manatees each year. In 2013, more than 175 died in southwest Florida alone. Water temperatures, fertilizer run-off and other factors contribute to these deadly outbreaks and the situation is not improving. In 2013, hundreds of manatees and other wildlife on Florida’s east coast died mysteriously and the sea grass beds on which manatees depend for food have seen a die-off as well.
The year 2013 was the deadliest so far for manatees, with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimating that 830 manatees died from a variety of causes. More than 250 have already died in 2014. The protections that have been in place—including speed limits, curbs on development and human use of their critical habitats and protection of warm water wintering areas—are more critical than ever for manatees, especially as Florida’s human population continues to grow.
Are we so selfish as a species that we can’t slow down when boating in certain areas, or exercise some restraint on further development in manatee habitat? There’s nothing excessive about having reasonable boundaries in place to protect critically endangered species, just as the National Marine Fisheries Service acknowledged last year when it adopted seasonal speed restrictions for ships in high-use habitat of the North Atlantic right whale. Manatees still face significant threats and die in tragically high numbers. Tell the USFWS this is not the time to downgrade their protections under the Endangered Species Act.