March 30th, 2016 is Manatee Appreciation Day, a day to marvel at these amazing and unique creatures and learn more about their status in the wild, including what can be done to protect their lives and future. Commonly referred to as sea cows, these fascinating mammals spend their entire lives underwater like few other mammals. However, unlike sleek, graceful and fast dolphins, manatees are big, slow giants that are quite content to simply hang beneath the surface of the water and eat all day long. It is their gentle, relaxed nature that makes them highly loved, and also often places them in great danger.
Some of the more fascinating facts about manatees include the fact that their closest living relative is the elephant–as they are both descended from a common ancestor, that many manatees have physically adapted to be able to live in both salty and fresh water, that they eat roughly one hundred to one hundred fifty pounds of plant matter each and every day, that early sightings of “mermaids” may have actually been sightings of manatees, and that due to their chosen home in shallow waters and rivers they have very few natural predators. Humans have long been the greatest threat to manatees, from hunting manatees for their oil or their bones to accidentally killing them with boat propellers. Their inability to reproduce as quickly as they were being wiped out led to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placing them on the endangered species list in 1967, where they have remained ever since.
Manatees Making a Comeback
On January 7th, 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposal to change the West Indian manatee’s status from endangered to threatened, due to reduced threats and significant improvements to their population. Prior to the announcement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had reviewed a petition for the status change for a full year to determine whether the manatee’s condition had indeed changed. Michael Bean, the principal deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks at the Department of the Interior, says that an inspection of the manatees’ condition revealed that their numbers are steadily climbing, and threats to their survival are steadily reducing. Many agencies, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and even the Coast Guard, have worked together to establish more than fifty protected areas for manatees, which most definitely helped the species to make such a dramatic and wonderful recovery. The Coast Guard played an important role in preventing trespassing through protected areas and minimizing collisions between boats and manatees.
When manatees were first placed on the endangered species list in 1967, their numbers in Florida were in the mere hundreds. In 1991, aerial surveys of Florida estimated that their numbers had increased to about twelve hundred. Today, it is estimated that there are more than sixty-three hundred manatees in Florida, and roughly thirteen thousand manatees around the world.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has warned that even while the manatee’s miraculous comeback definitely deserves celebration, preservation efforts should not change. Manatees will continue to be protected by government agencies and legislation like the Marine Mammal Protection Act, while many seek out new ways to help rebuild their populations, manage threats and support their role as a sentinel species–one that can indicate environmental disturbances so immediate action can be taken to reverse dangerous conditions and situations. This means, then, that the status change from endangered to threatened species is all the more reason for individuals to not only recognize the progress manatees have made but also recommit themselves to taking those actions necessary to ensure the long-term, successful recovery of these uniquely beautiful, gentle giants.