Buchanan Files Formal Protest to Manatee "Survival" Plan
Federal Rule Change “Already Exposing Dangers”
WASHINGTON – In a formal objection letter sent today to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Congressman Vern Buchanan, R-FL, urged the agency to withdraw its plan to strip the manatee of the highest protection afforded under the Endangered Species Act.
The public comment period on the agency's proposal opened Jan. 7 and closes this Thursday. Buchanan’s letter is a formal challenge to the proposed downgrading of the manatee from "endangered" to "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The manatee has been listed as an endangered species since 1966.
Buchanan expressed his strong opposition, noting that the agency’s analysis is based on outdated information. Buchanan pointed to the FWS’s failure to take into account manatee deaths since 2012, as well as the unpredictable nature of threats facing these creatures. He noted that 16% of the Florida manatee population died in 2013 as a result of a massive bloom of red tide algae as well as a mysterious ailment that killed a number of manatees along the state’s east coast.
“I’m concerned that weakening protections will lead to a decline in the manatee population,” Buchanan said. “Manatees are iconic residents of Florida. We should be doing all we can to ensure the survival of these gentle giants.”
Buchanan has previously written to the Fish and Wildlife Service to emphasize that any push to weaken protections for the manatee would be “misguided and premature.” In 2014, following a three-year period in which 1,600 manatees died of cold weather or red tide, Buchanan called on FWS to maintain federal protections for manatees.
Manatees face a variety of threats to their existence, including watercraft collisions, habitat loss and red tide. Additionally, the warm water springs manatees depend on during the winter months for survival are disappearing.
Buchanan also noted that the FWS underestimates the negative consequences that a downlisting will have on important protections that have helped limit manatee deaths. Despite the agency’s assertion that a downlisting would not affect federal protections for the manatee, Buchanan noted the plan is "already exposing dangers" and that a move from endangered to threatened could cause a broader reassessment of state and local protections for the animals.
Just days after the proposed rule was announced, the Brevard County commissioners approved a resolution requesting that the Florida Legislature review slow-speed zones currently in place for boats and called for a reconsideration of the state’s Manatee Sanctuary Act, which established protections for manatees and their habitats in several counties, including Sarasota and Manatee.
“The manatee population has started to rebound because of the protections put in place by the Endangered Species Act,” Buchanan said. “But based on the data provided, it’s clear that we can’t assume that manatees are safe - so I’m urging caution.”
Full text of Buchanan’s letter below:
April 4, 2016
The Hon. Daniel Ashe
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Department of Interior
1849 C St. NW, Room 3359
Washington, D.C. 20240
Dear Director Ashe:
I write in strong opposition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (the Service) proposal to downlist the West Indian manatee under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) from endangered to threatened status. This decision is based on outdated information and underestimates the effect that a downlisting will have on protections that have helped limit manatee deaths. As a result, I urge you to withdraw this proposed rule.
Manatees are special for many Floridians. In addition to being the state’s official marine mammal, an entire county – which I represent – is named after these gentle giants.
Just 25 years ago, there were barely over 1,000 manatees in the state of Florida. That number is now estimated to be around 6,000. The Service points to this as good news and rightfully credits the species’ listing as endangered under the ESA for this increase. The ESA has worked to help manatees overcome multiple threats to their existence. These challenges are not static, nor are they predictable. The Service should be taking a precautionary approach when it comes to the recovery of the manatee, and in light of the following concerns, the Service should withdraw its downlisting proposal and retain the manatees’ endangered status.
The basis for the Service’s proposal to reduce the status of manatees is said to be an analysis of the population’s viability. It is cited in the proposal as “Runge, 2015.” However, the Service’s proposal acknowledges that this analysis contains outdated data and information. For example, adult survival rates are based on data only through the winter of 2008-2009 and, elsewhere, the most recent information cited in the report is from 2011-2012.
Since the years used in the analysis, manatees have suffered a catastrophic die-off in the Indian River Lagoon that the U.S. Geological Service Representatives have stated cost the lives of five percent of the manatees on the U.S. east coast. During that same time, toxic algae (red tide) killed a record number of manatees on the state’s west coast. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, the statewide death toll of manatees was 803 as of 2013; or around 16 percent of the state's entire population. Yet none of this information was considered in the Service’s outdated analysis.
In addition, in its analysis, the Service assumes that the current level of mortality in each category (e.g., watercraft collisions, cold stress, red tide, etc.) will stay approximately the same indefinitely. However, this is unlikely. The likelihood of deaths from both red tide events and from unknown pathogens has not been adequately analyzed when projecting the future for manatees. Additionally, as noted by the Service itself, there will be a continued loss of artificial sources of warm water in the winter and, as a result, manatees in the Southwest and Northeast regions of the state will show “long-term decline” as a result of the loss of these warm water winter refuges.
In its January 6, 2016 press release, the Service stated that “[t]he proposal to downlist the manatee to threatened will not affect federal protections currently afforded by the ESA.” If all protections will remain the same, it is not apparent that a change in the listing status is necessary. In fact, downlisting the manatee may open the door to future erosions of protections for these unique animals.
The Service cites the existence of federal and state laws such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act as sufficient in providing the animals with the protections they need. Yet there is no guarantee that such other laws will remain in place to protect the species even if manatees are downlisted under the ESA.
Approximately fifty manatee protection areas are set up by federal, local, and industry leaders and many of these areas or their protective restrictions can be altered or removed if a downlisting goes forward. For example, despite the Service stating in its proposal that on the east coast of Florida “watercraft-related mortality is the major threat to this population,” five days after the proposed reduction in protections, the Brevard County commissioners approved a resolution requesting that the Florida Legislature review slow-speed zones for boats to determine whether they are effective or still necessary. The resolution also called for reconsidering the need for the Manatee Sanctuary Act, stating that it has “become a hindrance to effective manatee management.”
Manatees are iconic residents of Florida. Their presence drives a robust tourist industry. Their unhurried progress in my state’s waters is a reminder to us all to slow down and appreciate the world around us. Manatees deserve better than a premature determination that they have recovered when so many threats still face them and cloud our understanding of their future. I urge continued endangered status for manatees under the ESA, and ask you to immediately withdraw the Service’s proposal to downlist manatees to threatened status.