Florida’s manatee population could decline by more than half in the next 50 to 100 years, a new study shows.
That preliminary report will be presented to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at its Sept. 5 meeting in Pensacola Beach.
The Florida Marine Research Institute, a division of the FWC, did the study based on a request by the Coastal Conservation Association, a national group with a chapter in Florida, said Elsa Haubold, research administrator for the marine research institute, based in St. Petersburg.
"The state has no evidence that the manatee population has declined in the recent past," Haubold said. "But we have evidence that it could decline significantly in the near future."
Asked to define "near future" and "significant," she said, 50 to 100 years, and greater than a 50 percent decline, based on whether the manatees’ habitat declines.
Many manatees congregate in and around the Buckman Lock south of Palatka.
Statistics are not yet available for this year, but 11 manatees have died in Putnam County during the past five years, most in manmade accidents, according to records from the marine research institute.
A local environmentalist said the new report brings more information into a situation that needs more data.
"Information is always helpful, if it’s valuable," said Tim Keyser, a member of the Putnam County Environmental Council. "It sounds like this institute is concerned about loosening of protective measures."
Furthermore, Keyser said, "As long as that Rodman pool exists, the manatees are at risk. (The report is) just one of many good reasons to eliminate the Rodman pool. It causes losses of the species on a regular basis."
Buckman Lock reopened to water traffic in October 2002 after being closed for two years while manatee protection devices were installed and reinstalled. The lock is used by fishermen and boaters and provides a water route from the St. Johns River to Rodman Reservoir and back.
Ed Taylor, president of Save Rodman Inc., said the closing hurt fishing tournaments, fishing guides and recreational boaters.
In April 2000, state and federal agencies took Buckman Lock out of operation. The locks had been cited for causing an undetermined number of manatee deaths, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials. The Florida Legislature approved $600,000 to install manatee protection devices.
The marine research institute’s preliminary findings have been sent to scientists at several universities, which was a big goal for the marine research institute, Haubold said. That way, hopefully, more people – namely boaters and environmentalists – will agree on the manatee’s status: whether it should be classified as endangered, threatened or special concern, Haubold said.
In 1999, the FWC adopted new criteria for the categories of "endangered species," "threatened species" and "species of special concern." They include the probability that in the "near future" – 15 years for a manatee – the species will die and whether the species’ population will decline in the near future or has declined in the past, she said. The manatee was grandfathered in, along with many other species, as endangered, Haubold said.
But the CCA asked for a new evaluation of the manatee, she said.
An aerial survey in 2001 showed 3,276 manatees in Florida, the latest survey done, she said. But those numbers are scientifically insignificant, Haubold said.
The death rate is a better indication of whether manatees will survive, she said.
"No one knows how many manatees there are," Haubold said.
State wildlife officials in May delayed a decision about whether to downgrade the status of manatees as a species from endangered to threatened until it gets the final report in November.
Commissioners were set to reclassify manatees in January, but delayed the issue because they didn’t want to polarize boaters and environmentalists, who have been fighting over manatee rules.
A change in manatee status won’t change the level of protection manatees currently get or change their place on the federal list of endangered species. But boaters and environmentalists see a possible change as an important symbolic step that could influence politicians and judges in making laws and rulings on sea cow speed zones.