The US Fish and Wildlife Service has said it is proposing to reclassify the protection status of the West Indian manatee. The marine mammal could be instead classed as merely “threatened.”
Under US federal law, an “endangered” species is classified as one that is “currently in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”
The US Fish and Wildlife Service is now planning to alter the status of the manatees to “threatened,” meaning that it is still likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. However, the public are to be consulted on the move.
Some conservation groups oppose the change of status, saying that the underwater sea-grass-eating animal – which can reach 13 feet (4 meters) in length and weigh up to 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms) – still face many threats.
Florida population steadily growing
In the eastern US state of Florida, however, where a subspecies of manatee has been listed as endangered since 1967, the population has rebounded particularly well. The chubby, grayish-brown creatures’ numbers had been on the decline due to overhunting and collisions with boats.
Officials said “significant improvements in its population and habitat conditions and reductions in direct threats” had helped raise Florida’s manatee population five times higher over 25 years.
In 1991, official aerial surveys detected 1,267 manatees in Florida, the US Fish and Wildlife Service said. Now there are more than 6,300 in Florida alone, with an estimated 13,000 manatees across the species’ wider range, which includes the coastlines of the Caribbean islands, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil.
“The manatee’s recovery is incredibly encouraging and a great testament to the conservation actions of many,” said Cindy Dohner, southeast regional director to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Despite the manatee’s ungainly appearance, sailors in past centuries who were starved of female company are believed to have sometimes mistaken them for mermaids. The creatures live for some 40 years in the wild.