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National Geographic Photo Ark Spotlight: West Indian Manatee

Today should be a day to celebrate the recovery of the West Indian manatee, marked by its downlisting in terms of the U.S. Endangered Species Act from Endangered to Threatened. But the move by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Administration (FWS) is controversial, with some critics saying it is premature and others saying it is political. Why is the FWS reclassifying the West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus), and why are some conservationists upset about the change?

Click the logo above to find out more about the National Geographic Photo Ark project, and what you can do to help lynxes and other species survive for future generations.
Click the logo above to find out more about the National Geographic Photo Ark project, and what you can do to help lynxes and other species survive for future generations.

The West Indian manatee is a large, aquatic mammal, FWS says on its species profile website for the manatee. “There are two subspecies of West Indian manatees: the Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus), and the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris). Due to their eating habits, manatees are nicknamed ‘sea cows’ because they eat seagrasses and other aquatic plants.”

Today, FWS continues, “the rangewide population is estimated to be at least 13,000 manatees, with more than 6,500 in the southeastern United States and Puerto Rico. When aerial surveys began in 1991, there were an estimated 1,267 manatees in Florida. Today there are more than 6,300 in Florida, representing a significant increase over the past 25 years.” (Learn more about the manatee’s road to recovery.)

The downlisting comes after diverse conservation efforts and collaborations by Florida and other manatee states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Caribbean nations, public and private organizations and citizens, there have been notable increases in manatee populations and improvements in its habitat, FWS said in a news release last month. (Download the PDF setting out the case for reclassification.)

“The Fish and Wildlife Service has worked hand in hand with state and local governments, businesses, industry, and countless stakeholders over many years to protect and restore a mammal that is cherished by people around the world,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in a news announcement about the reclasification of the manatee. “Without this type of collaboration and the commitment of state and local partners, this downlisting would not have been possible.”

FWS did point out in its news statement that important challenges still remain to ensuring the species’ long-term future throughout its range. “As such, FWS biologists emphasized that the downlisting will not diminish any existing federal protections that will continue to play a vital role in the recovery of the species. The manatee will also continue to be protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”

Not everyone is convinced.  “We believe this is a devastating blow to manatees,” Patrick Rose, Executive Director for Save the Manatee Club (SMC) said in a new statement. With regard to Florida manatees in particular, Rose stated, “FWS decided to prematurely downlist manatees without a proven viable plan for reducing record-high watercraft-related manatee deaths and without establishing a long-term plan for the anticipated loss of artificial winter warm water habitat on which more than 60 percentof the Florida manatee population depends. A federal reclassification at this time will seriously undermine the chances of securing the manatee’s long- term survival.”

The Washington Post pointed out, “the Center for Biological Diversity also opposed the federal reclassification, calling 2016 ‘the deadliest year to date’ for the animals.”

The National Geographic Photo Ark is a multi-year project to photograph all species in captivity. The manatee is among them. To learn more about the Photo Ark, visit natgeophotoark.org,

Follow the Photo Ark photographer Joel Sartore and the National Geographic Photo Ark on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook, and add your voice using #SaveTogether.