Guest Commentary: Threats to manatees and habitat on the rise: Help protect their future
Throughout my 40 years as a professional aquatic biologist and most of my years as a student to become one, I have appreciated just how important manatees are to the health and welfare of our aquatic ecosystems. Therefore, it is especially disturbing to see such a misguided effort being made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prematurely remove manatees from the endangered species list while the threats and risks to them and the aquatic ecosystems upon which they depend are neither controlled today nor likely to be for the foreseeable future as required by the Endangered Species Act.
While I can certainly appreciate that the manatee population has grown since it was first listed as an endangered species, I know that the present threats are both great today and increasing. The significance of more recent losses of over a thousand manatees to severe cold, red tide, and still undetermined mortality events tied to the health of the Indian River Lagoon, was essentially ignored by the Fish and Wildlife Service in their recent flawed review of the manatees’ endangered status. Sadly, as I write this, more manatees have been killed by boats so far this year than in any other similar time period.
We only have to look closer at one of Florida’s most important treasures, the Indian River Lagoon (IRL). The northern lagoon is now in the throes of its second great assault from years of human caused nutrient pollution that has led to another devastating round of brown tide, fish kills, and the loss of more vital seagrass habitat just as the system had begun to recover from the first devastating loss of thousands of acres of seagrasses, and manatees, dolphins, and pelicans, as well as so many other species.
Consider also that the rest of the IRL continues to be assaulted with uncontrolled local runoff and leaching from septic tanks together with harmful surges of polluted freshwater coming from Lake Okeechobee. Sadly, one must look very hard to find any good news when it comes to the state of our aquatic ecosystems in Florida where the St. Johns and Caloosahatchee Rivers and Florida Bay are facing similar assaults. Even our priceless natural springs and the aquifer, upon which they depend, are being over-pumped and threatened with future loss to both manatees, as vital winter habitat, and all the myriad aquatic life which is similarly dependent upon them for survival.
What is especially disturbing, however, is that there is an organized effort by a powerful and richly funded anti-endangered species group to prevent the manatees and our aquatic ecosystems from receiving the protections they must have before we are too far past the tipping point to successfully recover them. They are so desperate to strip away what protections that exist, that they dare to blame the brown tides and seagrass losses on the manatees, ignoring the science that ties the problems directly to the years of uncontrolled growth and pollution from our growing human population.
By way of caution, I would point out that when considering how to reverse these years of uncontrolled pollutants from a variety of sources, it can be tempting to rush to remove the ugly dark muck thinking it will be a solution to the problem – when doing so in a reckless manner will actually place our ecosystems in even greater danger by feeding the growth and expansion of harmful algal blooms and fish kills. Ultimately, unless we fix what is broken (eliminating the excess nutrient loading at their sources, and balancing the amounts and timing of freshwater entering these systems), the muck, algal blooms and fish kills will just come back. On the other hand, strategic muck removal and selective vegetative restoration efforts, depending on the specific habitat features and conditions, can be a productive component to a larger scale restoration effort, but it should not be done at the expense of implementing ecosystem-wide restoration efforts.
I continue to be gravely concerned that prematurely removing the manatees’ endangered status at such a crucial time will make the task of restoring our aquatic ecosystems virtually impossible. There is no doubt in my mind that both the health of the manatee and the aquatic ecosystems are inseparable and increasingly vulnerable.
Please show your appreciation for manatees on this Manatee Appreciation Day by joining me in opposing the downlisting of manatees from endangered to threatened, and demanding that Florida and the federal government restore our aquifer, springs, rivers, and lagoons instead of giving in to those politically powerful and self-serving interests that want to continue to develop Florida in a way that will perpetuate the demise of our aquatic ecosystems and the species like the manatees that depend upon them.
To oppose downlisting, go to StandByYourManatee.org. The 90-day public comment period ends April 7.
– Patrick Rose is Save the Manatee Club’s Executive Director and is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on the Florida manatee.