The West Indian manatee, which includes the subspecies known as the Florida manatee, is no longer an endangered species; it has been downlisted to “threatened.” That means manatees could become endangered again within the foreseeable future. An endangered species, by contrast, is one faced with extinction throughout most or all of its range in the foreseeable future.
Manatees were put on the endangered species list in 1967. When scientists conducted surveys during the 70s, they found only a few hundred individuals. By contrast, conservationists found over 6600 manatees during aerial surveys conducted over the past three years.
Over the past several decades, authorities had taken steps to protect the manatees. One of the most important was imposing speed limits on boats to prevent collisions. Even now, collisions are a problem. Of the 520 manatees that had died during the past year, 20 percent had died because of injuries caused by collisions with boats.
The manatee’s change in status does not change the various federal or state protections for the animal; they will remain in effect.
Phil Kloer, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior, called the manatee’s downlisting “a success story.” He commented, “It has been doing very well, it has been coming back.”
Some conservationists were less sanguine and expressed concerns that the rules protecting the manatee would eventually be loosened. Frank Jackalone, the director of the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter, expressed fears that the boating rules would be loosened. He said, “Florida boaters are going to take this as a signal that they can increase their speed in manatee zones.”
As the manatees’ numbers have increased, so have the number of those killed by boats, despite the fact that authorities go after boaters who speed in manatee zones.
The Save The Manatee Club also opposed the downlisting and expressed concerns about the high number of manatees that congregate near power plants, especially in northern Florida. The Club’s members worry that the manatees are becoming too dependent on the artificially warmed water near the plants.