Members of the Florida delegation sent a letter on Thursday urging the U.S. Interior Department to reverse its decision downgrading the Florida manatee’s status from “endangered” to “threatened.”
Led by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., congressional representatives from the Sunshine State signed on to a letter to U.S. Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke opposing the decision. Other signers included U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Fla., and Florida Democrats U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist, Val Demings, Ted Deutch, Alcee Hastings, Stephanie Murphy, Darren Soto, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson.
“We urge you to reconsider and reverse the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision last week to downgrade protections for the Florida manatee,” the representatives wrote. “This decision was disappointing and potentially very harmful to the survival of the iconic Florida animal. Despite the agency’s assertion that a downlisting from endangered to threatened would not affect federal protections for the manatee, the move could cause a broader reassessment of critical state and local protections for the animals. In fact, just days after this rule proposal 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.
“As you may know, the manatee at one time was on the brink of extinction. We cannot support any action that could lead to such conditions again,” they added. “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 are disappearing. We also would note that manatee deaths are on the rise, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. During the public comment period for the downlisting rule, nearly 87,000 comments opposed the rule with only 72 comments in support. We would also note that the scientists invited by the Fish and Wildlife Service to formally review the downlisting plan opposed weakening manatee protections.
“Based on widespread opposition from the public and scientists, we urge you to overturn this decision and restore manatees to endangered status,” they wrote in conclusion. “Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.”
Buchanan’s office noted there has been an increase in the number of manatee deaths, including 520, around which 100 were the results of boating accidents, in 2016.
When they announced their decision, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials noted that federal protections remain in place for the manatees, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service has worked hand in hand with state and local governments, businesses, industry, and countless stakeholders over many years to protect and restore a mammal that is cherished by people around the world,” Zinke said. “Without this type of collaboration and the commitment of state and local partners, this downlisting would not have been possible.”
“While there is still more work to be done to fully recover manatee populations, particularly in the Caribbean, manatee numbers are increasing and we are actively working with partners to address threats,” said Jim Kurth, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s acting director. “Today we both recognize the significant progress we have made in conserving manatee populations while reaffirming our commitment to continuing this species’ recovery and success throughout its range.”