Call to save Florida

The IUCN World Conservation Union officially declared the Florida manatee endangered, using exactly the same criteria Florida officials are attempting to use to justify downgrading the manatee’s status from endangered to threatened.

After a scientific status review at the international level, the Florida manatee was declared endangered on the Red List, which is recognized as the most reliable evaluation of the world’s species. The manatee’s status evaluation was conducted and also reviewed by some of the world’s most qualified sirenian scientists, who based their recommendation for listing as endangered on the most recent scientific data.

Incongruously, that was the day the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission was scheduled to vote on whether to reclassify the manatee to a lesser state – imperilled status – a vote that marine industry representatives and go-fast boating interests have supported for many years. But just two days before this monumental vote, Gov. Charlie Crist came to the rescue and asked the FWC for a reprieve for manatees, wisely urging them to postpone the vote, while also questioning the accuracy of the method used to estimate the size of the manatee population.

Ultimately, FWC listened to the governor and unanimously voted to postpone the manatee’s reclassification, but under pressure from boating and development interests will revisit this issue at its Dec. 5 meeting.

How could the FWC, claiming to be using IUCN’s widely supported listing/delisting criteria, conclude that manatees are no longer endangered and move to downlist them?

The answer is simple. While the FWC adopted IUCN’s criteria for endangered species, it opted to call species that met those criteria threatened, instead of endangered. Ironically, the FWC openly declares that manatees, with less than 2,500 adults, face a “very high risk of extinction,” but want to wait until a species’ risk of extinction is “imminent” before declaring it endangered. That’s a sure recipe for future extinctions.

The FWC continues to nonsensically argue that protections won’t change if manatees are downlisted. In light of the hundreds of manatees killed since the unjustifiable reclassification process began, this argument seems disingenuous, at best. At worst, a change in status at this time could have serious consequences like cuts in funding for research, rescue and enforcement programs. Already numerous law enforcement positions are proposed to be cut to meet state budget shortfalls.

Furthermore, it is widely recognized that the natural springs and power plant discharges that most manatees depend upon to survive the coldest winter days are likely to be lost in the not-too-distant future. Unless Florida’s springs are protected and alternatives to the power plants are found and implemented, there also is consensus that manatees could suffer catastrophic winter losses leading to more than a 50-percent decline in the current manatee population.

With mortality continuing at a brisk pace this year, with threats from both human and natural causes escalating, and with the manatee’s international biological status confirmed as endangered, it is time for the FWC to kill the unwarranted downlisting effort.

Looking beyond manatees to Florida’s other imperilled species, it is time for the FWC to fix its imperiled species classification system by adopting one where all of Florida’s most-at-risk species can be fairly reviewed, classified properly and managed accordingly to sustain and recover their numbers in the wild.