The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that new critical habitat protections may be warranted for the Florida manatee. The notice, published in the Federal Register on September 29, means that the Fish and Wildlife Service will conduct a full review of scientific information to determine whether additional critical habitat protections are needed.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Save the Manatee Club, and the Wildlife Advocacy Project had filed a petition to revise the manatee’s critical habitat claiming manatees need new protected habitat because a vast body of science has developed about what areas are essential to the survival of manatees since the critical habitat was originally designated in 1976.
Manatees are marine mammals, gray in color, that live in warm shallow, estuarine waters and are basically solitary creatures. They can live up to 60 years. When born they weigh about 66 pounds (30 kilos) and grow to a mass of between 880 and 1200 pounds (400 and 550 kilos) and 9 to 12 feet (2.8 to 3.6 meters). Half of their day they spend sleeping in the water, having to surface for air at most every 20 minutes.
Manatees are a migratory species that – within the United States – can be found in Florida in the winter months and as far as Texas and Massachusetts in the summer months. Their habitat is threatened by a variety of factors, such as coastal development, propeller scarring and seagrass damage, dams and other water control structures and pollution and marine debris, including derelict fishing gear. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than seven times the sustainable level of Florida’s manatees are killed each year by human activities, including vessel collisions.
Patti Thompson, a leading manatee biologist who co-authored the petition for the Wildlife Advocacy Project, said:
“I am pleased that the Service is moving forward with this long overdue strengthening of the manatee’s habitat designation. Our petition is designed not only to update the geographic areas using the latest available scientific information, but also to address the absence in the current designation of required ‘constituent elements’ that must be protected, such as warm water, travel corridors, and food sources. Although these omissions were understandable when manatee critical habitat was first designated more than 30 years ago, it is vitally important that the designation now be based on the best science available.”
The Florida manatee was one of the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act and among the first to have critical habitat designated for protection. These protections have helped slow the decline of manatees and promoted their conservation, but manatees still face a host of threats, and new habitat protections are urgently needed.
Critical habitat designation is an important layer of protection that means that any federal activity conducted in the area must undergo environmental review to ensure that it does not harm or destroy the manatee’s habitat. A rule proposing new critical habitat is due by December 19, 2009, a year from the date the petition was filed.
Copyright © 2009 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC