Florida’s Manatees are No Longer Endangered

by Giovanna Brasolin

There’s a creature that populates shallow waters — slow-moving rivers, saltwater bays, canals and coastal areas — where beds of seagrass and other freshwater vegetation is present.

They are commonly  known as sea cows and are considered to be a migratory species. The species cannot survive in temperatures under 68 degrees, so when the winter comes, they concentrate in Florida’s warm waters, bringing ecotourism to the area.

In 2017, the Department of the Interior reclassified manatees in Florida as threatened instead of endangered. The report states the reason for the delisting was better habitat conditions and population expansion. Today’s estimated population of Florida manatees is 6,620 which is a big turnaround from the few hundreds in the 1970s.

“State and Federal Biologists saw an upward trend in population size,” said Lori Benson McRae, associate biology professor. “I’m just cautiously optimistic about that. It means we’re doing something right in terms of management and protection. As well, we do potentially see other resources freed up for other endangered species.”  

The delisting of manatees has been well-reported in the media and the threats to them have been somewhat addressed, according to McRae. However, her main concern is that, due to their reproductive biology, the population may quickly decline if they have several bad years with high boat strike mortality.

“My take on endangered species is that it’s really sad.” said Victoria Thomae, freshman journalism major. “It breaks my heart because it’s just neglect from humans being carefree and only caring about themselves instead of thinking about the environment.So, I hope that more people start to realize their impact on the environment because that could really help with the progression of ecological conservation.”

Florida’s ecotourism is known for manatees, alligators and sea turtles. UT students enjoy spending time at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, where manatees swim alongside kayaks and paddleboards. Residents and tourists can also visit ZooTampa at Lowry Park and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to see Florida’s staple animals. Additionally,  there is a Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach.

There are various laws and regulations for the protection of these animals as well as others. Manatees are protected by a state law under the Manatee Sanctuary Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Some other protection regulations are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

The FWC has a Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg where manatee research, rescue and recovery is done. They also stipulate the cost of losing manatees and do population monitoring and the data is later on sent to FWC’s management office, according to Ron Mezich, Biological administrator at FWC.

“I think whenever you can show improvement, it’s good news,” said Mezich. “If you’re benefiting manatees, you’re probably benefiting other species, too. It wasn’t our agency that reclassified the manatees, but we did support it. Over the last 30 years, we have seen manatee population growth, but along with it, many other things still need to be done.”

Another species that has recently left the endangered list are the green sea turtles that are found in the range of Florida and Mexico. The World Wildlife website (www.worldwildlife.org) indicates that green sea turtles, hawksbill turtles and five other turtle subspecies in other areas are  either vulnerable to extinction or endangered.

Griffin Baughn, a junior marine science-biology major, has worked in a sea turtle rehabilitation center. Baughn educates people  about sea turtles and the issues they face. He thinks that the ultimate goal for those involved in environmentalism should be to spread information. Baughn also believes that a balance should be made in terms of allocating some land to tourism, buildings and keeping another portion for wildlife.

“It’s easy for us to declare that the state needs to regulate marinas and restaurants,” said Baughn. “Destroying habitats to create businesses because we’re on the side of conservation.But you have to bear in mind that the state also cares about tourism, making money and funding itself.”

Among the efforts to diminish wildlife mortality are the push back on plastics, no wake and boat speed zones, improved fishing methods and better devices to detect nearby forms of wildlife. The general public may think recycling is a big step towards ecological conservation. However so much environmental damage has been made that it’s hard to tell if that’s really going to help much, according Baughn.

Mezich added that all protection laws are still in place,  it’s not because the status of manatees have changed. He tells people to be aware of their surroundings and to back off if there’s a form of wildlife near because humans impact wildlife and their habitats, even if they don’t know it. By doing so wildlife can enjoy their habitat and you can enjoy wildlife.

Giovanna Brasolin can be reached at giovanna.brasolin@spartans.ut.edu

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