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Groups spar over change in manatee status

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it will review the latest science and seek public comment regarding the West Indian manatee’s endangered status.

The National Marine Manufacturers Association supports a down listing of the animal from endangered to threatened because that would change the slow-speed zones that cause boaters to go at no-wake speed for significant distances in some areas of Florida.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday that it will review the latest science and seek public comment about the manatee, even as conservationists note that the animals suffered a record number of deaths in Florida last year.

The move follows a lawsuit filed in April on behalf of Save Crystal River Inc., an organization advocating for boaters’ rights in west-central Florida waters that are known for frequent manatee sightings.

“We want the government to acknowledge that it’s improved,” Christina Martin, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing the group, told Reuters. “A threatened species is still protected.”

However, several conservation advocates worry that a downgrade would result in further dwindling of the manatee’s numbers. Under pressure from boating activists and libertarians, Florida wildlife officials are reconsidering the status of the iconic manatee, or “sea cow,” according to the Digital Journal.

In recent years, manatee numbers in Florida and Puerto Rico have met the benchmark for reclassification set in a 1997 federal wildlife recovery plan, officials acknowledged in announcing their review, according to the Reuters report. But averages fall short of the 10,000 nesting pairs identified in the current plan.

“The population is undeniably going backwards,” said Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, citing deaths in recent years and an erosion of manatee habitat. “This is a really bad time because there is too much uncertainty, too much at risk, going forward.”

Nevertheless, the change in status would be an important recognition of the rebounding of the manatee population. The announcement, referred to as a 90-day substantial finding, marks the start of a more in-depth status review and analysis required by the Endangered Species Act to determine whether reclassification of the manatee is warranted. The Fish and Wildlife Service also is electing to simultaneously conduct an updated five-year status review that the Endangered Species Act also requires.