Call in Florida to sink bid to lower status of manatee
WHEN Brandy Pounds swam in central Florida's Crystal River earlier this month, she came so close to an endangered manatee that she could feel the sea cow's breath tickling her toes.
"And then I turned around and we were face-to-face," said the 41-year-old therapist from Texas.
"We made eye contact.
"It was pretty cool."
Languid, whiskered and weighing as much as 544kg, the bulbous Florida manatees - a subspecies of the West Indian manatees - were among the first creatures to be named by the United States as a federally endangered species in 1967, alongside the iconic bald eagle and American alligator.
For decades, manatees have been celebrated and protected by environmentalists and celebrities alike, earning the title of the official state marine mammal of Florida and the admiration of celebrities like singer Jimmy Buffett.
But times may be changing for these slow-moving seagrass eaters.
A controversial proposal by the US Fish and Wildlife Service calls for downgrading them from "endangered" to "threatened", based on their ballooning population size.
In Florida alone, the agency said the manatee population has grown to a record 6,350 as of last month.
Early estimates of their population are hard to come by but the first aerial surveys flown over Florida in 1991 counted 1,267 manatees.
A final decision, expected some time next year, would apply to all West Indian manatees in the region, from Florida to the Caribbean and northern South America.
"I believe this is just a first step of celebrating a success story," Ivan Vicente, visitor services specialist at the Fish and Wildlife Service Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex, told Agence France-Presse.
"It's only a very minor difference," he said of the change in terminology.
"It just means that the species is not as vulnerable to extinction as it once was but still vulnerable.
"So the level of protection does not change."
Opponents say a host of threats remain, including disease, loss of habitat, cold stress and collisions with watercraft.
"We really think it is premature," said the Save the Manatee Club's director of science and conservation, Katie Tripp.
She noted the change could amount to less money for manatee protection, and does not take account of future risks the animal will face.
Among them, the expected loss of winter refuge they get from clustering around power plants that discharge warm water.
As these plants are gradually made more environmentally friendly, as many as 4,000 manatees could die from the cold, she said.
For Ms Tripp, it does not matter that five times more manatees exist today than 25 years ago.
"We are not at all focused on a number and we don't want the agency focused on a number either.
"It is just about the habitat," she said.
In the winter, hundreds of Florida manatees converge in the natural warm water springs near Crystal River, where boat captain and co-owner of Manatees In Paradise Mike Dunn said the animal has shaped the local way of life.
He leads tours of six tourists at a time into Three Sisters Springs and the nearby canals.
Snorkellers must watch a video first that explains how to avoid harassing manatees - no chasing, no poking and no hugging allowed.
Killing a manatee is also forbidden.
Violators of federal protections may face fines of up to US$100,000 (S$136,000) and a year in prison.
"It's all about respect," according to Mr Dunn, who said he views as "absurd" any effort to downgrade the manatees' status.
"I cannot believe anybody that's actually making money on manatees wants to downlist them," he added.
"Without the manatees, we don't need the restaurants, we don't need the hotels.
"Manatees are the main source of income here."
But boating groups have led the charge - along with a group called Save Crystal River which petitioned the government in 2012 - to reclassify the manatee as "threatened," based on Fish and Wildlife's own findings in 2007.
The push to downlist manatees began in 1999 with Wade Hopping, a boating-industry lobbyist who argued manatee protection would limit the number of docks, marinas and boats, said Tampa Bay Times' reporter Craig Pittman.
More than 1,100 comments - many in favour of keeping the manatees listed as endangered - have already been posted on the Fish and Wildlife Service's website.
The public comment period ends on April 7.
AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE