Desoto Parkway looks just like any other street in Satellite Beach, Florida. The houses are square-shaped and warm shades of tan, yellow, or pink. The roads are perfectly paved and the sidewalks lining the street are surrounded by palm trees. But just a few feet down the road lies a canal that boasts something special: a habitat for the endangered manatee.
I was surprised, and excited, to see more than 30 manatees snuggling in the shallow waters within the canal off of Desoto. Surprised, because the manatee population is just above 6000 individuals, and thrilled, because my encounter solidified everything that I’d learned about how their population is growing.
Manatees, nicknamed sea cows, are as cute as they are ugly. Distant relatives of elephants, their faces are wrinkled and resemble that of a seal, and their bodies are blubbery and curvy. Some appear reddish from the algae growing on their backs. They also display curious and friendly personalities, and perhaps this is why their population has experienced dramatic fluctuations.
According to Defenders of Wildlife, Florida manatees have been, and continue, to be involved in collisions with watercraft. In fact, in 2009, 97 manatees were killed in boating accidents. Other human related activities have affected the population patterns of manatees.
The Defenders of Wildlife website explains how warm water (above 68 degrees) is crucial to the wellbeing of manatees. Because residential development has destroyed warm water springs once prevalent in Florida, the manatees have experienced cold stress. In 2010, 300 manatees died during the winter when they couldn’t find access to warmer waters.
In order to keep warm, many manatees flock to waters near power plants or residential areas, according to Huffington Post. I witnessed such behaviors upon visiting the canal that is connected to the water run-off of the houses surrounding the canal.
Even though I was lucky enough to spot manatees in Florida during this past vacation, they still aren’t greatly numerous.
These animals, which have been classified as endangered since 1972, have experienced more than a 500% growth (to 6063 individuals) in population since then in Florida according to CNN. They are now pending to be classified as threatened, which means that they could still become endangered in the future, whereas being classified as endangered means that they could be extinct in the future. Being threatened is less concerning than being endangered, but still concerning just the same.
With this new classification, restrictions involving boat speed zones and habitat protection will not be altered, even if some residents, such as Curtis Smith of Brevard County, believe that “the protections weren’t effective.”
This process to have the manatees’ status changed has taken more than 8 years to gain momentum by the government. Some believe the reclassification is a positive event. It will highlight that manatees are thriving, and will remind the government to keep up with its standards involving animal classifications.
Sara Piotter, a naturalist at the Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach thinks that the change in status would be beneficial.
She explained how the “manatees would still be protected” and how conservation organizations covering multiple species will “pool money into something else in [greater] peril, which makes sense.”
Others think that the “downgrade” in status will discourage people’s protective efforts.
Whether or not they are labeled threatened, manatees still deserve protection. Hopefully with consistent efforts, they will continue to show improvement, independent of their change in status.