What's 10 feet long as an adult, weighs more than 1,000 pounds, lives in rivers and bays and is Florida's state marine mammal? If you answered manatee, then chances are you also know it's an endangered species.
That status could soon change, though. Wildlife officials in Florida want to "downlist" the manatee, moving its status from "endangered" to "threatened."
Supporters of the move say it's a sign of the Florida manatee's comeback. Environmental groups say it has more to do with the influence of developers.
As gentle vegetarians that spend most of their time foraging in rivers and bays for sea grass, manatees have no natural predators. But they do face significant danger — mostly from power boats and their propellers.
At the Seaquarium in Miami, Dr. Maya Rodriguez directs care of manatees that are being rehabilitated after being injured in the wild, often by boats. One of the manatees, an adult female they call Senora, is being treated for a particularly serious pyothorax injury.
Those injuries happen when a manatee is struck by the hull of a fast-moving boat, fracturing its ribs. It's an injury that's usually fatal. In the past, manatees with those injuries were euthanized. The Seaquarium is working, though, to learn how to treat the injury. And, after ten months of care, Senora is doing well.
Dr. Rodriguez says, "We're going to continue to see this type of injury because of the boat impacts and boat mortality increasing."
More Manatees, More Deaths
Depending on whom you talk to, it's either a good time — or a not so good time for the Florida manatee. Take the issue of mortality, for example. Last year, a record number of manatees — more than 400 — died; boats were the leading cause.
Kip Frohlich of Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says overall, the manatee population continues to grow, so it's important to keep that number in perspective.
"Four hundred and sixteen dead manatees is a lot of dead manatees for the course of a year," he says. "But how does that fit into a population? As a wildlife population grows, you actually get more of those animals dying."
Frohlich supports his agency's proposal to change the manatee's status from "endangered" to "threatened." That's a proposal that was tentatively approved by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission earlier this year.
But just recently, Florida's Republican governor, Charlie Crist, stepped in and asked the commission to postpone its final decision until new members had a chance to study the issue.
That was a big disappointment to Steven Webster, with the Marine Contractors Association. The trade group, which represents marina and dock builders, has long pushed for the manatee's downlisting.
"We've heard people say that, 'Oh my! If this plan is adopted, if reclassification takes place, speed zones will go away, permitting rules and restrictions will go away,,and it will be utter chaos in Florida,'" Webster says. "That's not going to be the case."
The problem, says Patrick Rose of Save the Manatees, is the selective way in which Florida's Wildlife officials are using scientific criteria to justify a change in the manatee's status. Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the World Conservation Union, he notes, list the Florida manatee as endangered.
"When you have a species that could be losing 50 percent of its population in the next three generations, and you want to call that threatened, that's just not consistent," Rose says.
Rose wants to keep the Florida manatee on the state's endangered list, and also to change the rule that has led to its proposed downlisting. Florida recently downlisted another species considered endangered by the federal government, the red cockaded woodpecker. Rose fears other endangered species may soon follow.
Rose argues that these listing decisions are being made not by scientists, but by politicians seeking to accommodate growth and development.
"It's especially acute when you have an aquatic species, a marine mammal like the manatee, that depends on the near shore habitats. That's where the land prices are escalating the most," Rose says.
Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meets again in December. Staff members believe that by then, they can satisfy Gov. Crist's questions and finalize their long-delayed plans to move the Florida manatee off the state's list of endangered species.