Environment group warns against reducing manatees' endangered status

US government move to downgrade the conservation status of manatees and green sea turtles is premature, group says, despite signs species are recovering

A US government move to downgrade the conservation status of manatees and green sea turtles is premature, an environment group has warned, despite encouraging signs that both species are recovering.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has proposed that the West Indian manatee be down-listed from endangered to threatened under the endangered species act. The move follows a notable recovery in manatee numbers – in 1991, it was estimated there were just 1,267 of the hefty aquatic beasts off the coast of Florida.

That number has now swelled to 6,300 in Florida, with 13,000 in total across the manatee’s entire range, which stretches throughout the south-eastern US, Caribbean, Mexico and the northern coasts of South America.

The FWS said that work to reduce collisions with speedboats and unintentional entanglements with fishing nets has paid off, as well as the effective rehabilitation of sick and injured manatees, which can weigh over 3,000 pounds and are nicknamed “sea cows” because they eat copious amounts of sea grass.

“The manatee is one of the most charismatic and instantly recognizable species,” said Michael Bean, principal deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.

“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.”

Under the act, a species is considered endangered, and therefore afforded the highest level of protection, if it is in danger of extinction throughout a large part of its habitat. The FWS says manatees no longer fit this bill and neither do the green sea turtles found near US shores.

The agency has split green sea turtles into 11 distinctive populations and proposed that the two populations found in US waters – on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts – should be considered threatened rather than endangered.

This relisting follows efforts to reduce the poaching of turtle eggs, pollution and loss of habitat. Researchers at Florida’s Archie Carr national wildlife Refuge, considered the most important green sea turtle habitat in North America, counted 14,152 nests by the end of last year’s egg-laying season in the autumn. This number beat the previous record, set in 2013, and is a vast improvement on the 200 nests found in 2001.

It’s estimated that the last breeding season produced as many as three million baby turtles in Florida. Most of these young turtles will be picked off by gulls and ocean predators, or become entangled in fishing nets, which means a large juvenile population is needed to ensure a viable adult generation is formed.

But the Center for Biological Diversity said it was premature to down-list the manatees and warned that sea turtles “aren’t out of the woods yet”.

“We are the first ones to celebrate an endangered species success but the population increase is just one sign the agency needs to consider,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the environmental group. “Issues such as habitat destruction, disease and predation and other sources of human mortality such as climate change really concern us.

“We know that around 80 manatees a year are recovered after being struck by boats. A down listing will mean that this number could increase without the species considered as being in danger. We have also lost hundreds of manatees to an unknown cause, possibly a toxin. When you combine this with the pressures of climate change, we worry there may be a die-off that will bring us back to where we were with manatees.”

Lopez added that sea turtles faced a huge challenge from sea level rises driven by climate change, which could wipe out any localized efforts to aid the species.

“We need to address sea level rise here in Florida in terms of mitigation and adaption,” she said. “Many of our beaches are already critically eroded and when there’s a big storm event we lose yards of beach at a time. This eats up turtle nesting habitat.

“We have a global problem we need to get a handle on. Without addressing that the turtles cannot be completely delisted. We have to be careful about these protections, especially as the Fish and Wildlife Service is a political agency and there could be a change with a new president. We shouldn’t jump the gun in a bid to demonstrate our progress on these species.”

A FWS spokesman said climate change will be a “central part” of its considerations over the green sea turtle and that protections for both turtles and manatees will remain in place. A final decision on the turtle’s status will be taken in spring, while public comments on the manatee’s listing will be open until April.


Oliver Milman in New York

The GuardianTramp

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