Wildlife commission delays decision on reclassifying manatees

Patti Thompson, a biologist with Save the Manatee Club, and an opponent of reclassifying manatees, talks to a reporter after a public meeting Thursday in Fort Myers. Environmentalists and boaters faced off Thursday before a state commission over whether the Florida manatee is still an endangered species.

The Associated Press
Published: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 12:46 a.m.

FORT MYERS - The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission delayed its decision Thursday on whether to change the classification of the manatee from endangered to threatened.

The commission voted after hearing from the Florida Marine Research Institute, which has recommended that the animal be reclassified as threatened. Endangered species are considered to be in imminent danger of extinction, while the less-severe classification of threatened means that the animal requires special protection. The commission will now vote in November.

Search teams counted 2,861 manatees in Florida's waters earlier this month, compared to 1,796 manatees one year ago. That 59 percent jump may be misleading, however, because researchers said the weather was perfect for counting this year, but wasn't last year.

Gil McRae, the marine research institute's director, said his group did 100 computer simulations looking at the manatee population and in no scenario was the mammal threatened with extinction.

"All indications point to a steadily improving manatee population," he said, though he acknowledged that it was difficult to determine future conditions.

Power boats are seen as one the animals' biggest threat, killing a recored 95 manatees last year. But boater representatives said Thursday taht the animals' increasing numbers show that current restrictions on boat speed, dock building and water recreation are sufficient and don't require stregthening.

"We ought to celebrate the good news" that the manatee population is growing, said Wade Hopping, a lobbyist for marine manufacturers.

But environmentalists said reclassifying the manatee would send the message that the state is less concerned about the animal than it has been.

"You can't say we're taking the lead on mantee protection when you are downlisting the species," said Patty Thompson of Save The Manatee.

Kenneth Haddad, executive director of Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, said any change would have little practical effect at the state would still enforce its laws protecting the manatees.

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