Are manatees bouncing back from the brink of extinction? Recent aerial counts conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission suggest it may be so. A record 6,250 manatees were recorded in Florida this past winter, breaking the last record of 5,077 manatees in 2010.
Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed reclassifying the West Indian manatee, which includes the Florida subspecies, from “endangered” to “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. By definition, an endangered species is a “species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range” and a threatened species is a “species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” USFWS believes that the West Indian manatee is no longer in danger of extinction throughout all of its range due to decades of conservation efforts. The proposal is available for public review and comment until April 8, and the agency will announce its final decision sometime in 2017.
If USFWS does end up reclassifying the manatee to threatened, the existing Federal protection and conservation laws should remain unchanged. However, some entities like the Save the Manatee Club think the manatee population has not recovered well enough to be downlisted just yet. Outside of the United States, manatee populations are still declining in 84% of their range countries (in Mexico, Central and South America).
Whether manatees are reclassified or not, all parties agree that they continue to face serious threats that must be addressed to ensure the species’ survival. The Florida manatee, specifically, is at risk from both natural and man-made causes of injury and mortality. Exposure to red tide, cold stress, and disease are all natural problems that can affect manatees. Human-caused threats include habitat loss, boat strikes, crushing by flood gates or locks, and entanglement in or ingestion of fishing gear.
Take BamBam, the newest and youngest manatee currently residing at the Zoo, for example. BamBam was rescued from the DeSoto Canal in Brevard County in January 2015. He was suffering from cold stress and has some tissue damage on his tail as a result. Manatees are susceptible to cold stress syndrome, which can be fatal, when water temperatures fall below 68 degrees Farenheit. Historically, manatees would overwinter in natural warm water springs. However, as development has altered or taken over many of those natural springs, manatees have become dependent on warm water discharge from power plants. As technology improves, power plants become more energy-efficient, which is a good thing except that it means they are discharging cooler water, leaving the manatees out in the cold. We need to protect and restore natural warm water habitats to alleviate this problem.
BamBam came to Cincinnati in October 2015 for long-term rehabilitation. The Cincinnati Zoo is one of two U.S. Zoos outside of Florida that participate in the USFWS’ Manatee Rescue, Rehabilitation and Release Program. The goal of the program is to rescue and treat sick, injured and orphaned manatees and then release them back into the wild. Since 1999, the Zoo has rehabilitated and released 12 manatees. Once BamBam fully recovers, he will make lucky number 13. Stay tuned to keep up with BamBam’s progress.
On this Manatee Appreciation Day, we find ourselves cautiously optimistic about the future of manatees in the wild and are proud to play our part in their recovery.