Manatee’s downlisting, up again for a vote, must not happen

SSUE: The manatee’s downlisting of protected status is back up for a vote.

It was less than three months ago that Gov. Charlie Crist, so concerned about the manatee’s survival, persuaded the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission to delay its vote to downlist the sea cow’s protected status from “endangered” to “threatened.”

He called the issue “an item of such gravity” that it deserved deeper study before stripping the vulnerable marine creature of strict protections, especially the year after it suffered record deaths.

It was a convincing argument, and it worked, for a while. But now, the vote is back on the conservation commission’s agenda, scheduled for Wednesday.

Surely, when Crist called for further examination of the manatee’s chances for long-term survival, he — and all reasonable Floridians — expected such a critical study to take more than a few weeks. If there was a reason to postpone the September vote, the item has no business being voted on this soon, either.

Let’s call this what it is: a clear attempt by the construction and boating industries to knock the slow-moving manatee down a protective notch in the hopes it’ll mean they can build more docks and drive faster through Intracoastal canals, where the manatees lumber along.

The conservation commission has been lobbied heavily over the years by those groups, and it’s very likely Crist is getting similar pressure not to resurrect his plea now that the downlisting is back up for a vote. The governor must not give in, but should show the same mettle he did in September, when he rode to the manatee’s rescue.

He can rest assured that downlisting would not mean the manatee is suddenly safe from extinction. Quite the contrary. Even the commission acknowledges that the manatee faces a “very high risk” of annihilation, but prefers to wait until the chance of extinction is imminent before calling it “endangered.” That would be too late.

Fewer than 2,500 adults exist today, and their greatest threat remains the boat, collisions with which accounted for a large portion of the manatee’s record 417 deaths last year. Commission officials argue that the downgrade will not be accompanied by any reduction in protections. But that is hard to believe. At the very least, it creates a mind set that the manatee is better off, when it’s not, and the need to maintain enforcement of speed zones or safeguard its habitat is not as important.

It’s a dangerous message to send, at the wrong time, and Crist has shown he can do something about it. He should use those persuasive powers again, when they’re needed most.

ISSUE: The downlisting is no more appropriate now than it was in September. Cancel the vote.


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Filed under biodiversity, nature, wildlife

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