manatee in water with scars above eye

Manatees are in trouble. The gentle, vegetarian marine mammals are at long-term risk from habitat loss, injuries from boat propellers and a host of other factors. But right now, they’re facing a more immediate danger: losing their status as an endangered species.

In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) was petitioned to consider changing the manatee’s status from endangered to merely threatened. This past July, USFWS announced that it was moving forward on a status review that would consider whether to implement this change, called downlisting.

As part of the review process, USFWS accepts public comments, but only for a limited time. The comment period ends September 2, and Patrick Rose would like you to weigh in.

Why Manatees Are Still in Danger

Rose is executive director of Save the Manatee Club, which has been working to conserve the species since 1981. He says that when downlisting was last considered in 2007, there were signs of improvement, but the situation has gone downhill since. "Within the last five years, three of those years had record mortality, two of which were exceptionally high record mortality," he says.

Manatees are facing loss of habitat, which is expected to accelerate. To survive the winter, they need warm water sources, which include both natural springs and the outflow from power plants. Even with the current sources of warm water, they’ve been suffering from the cold. In 2010, 766 manatees died in the United States, more than 300 because of cold stress. And this kind of habitat, which has not been protected for the future, is shrinking.

"Spring flows are reducing. They’re becoming polluted, and over time, with the pressure of pumping from the aquifer and climate change, we’re going to be seeing that situation getting worse," Rose says.

Manatees are also affected by declining water quality in a variety of ways. A record red tide killed 276 manatees in southwestern Florida in 2013. "Red tides are becoming more frequent and more virulent," he says. "And recent science seems to indicate not that they form because of pollution, but that [pollution] is making them last longer and have a greater impact." The manatee’s food sources are also affected by pollution.

Why "Threatened" Is Not Good Enough

Since "threatened" would mean manatees are still protected, then you may wonder about the impact of the status change. Rose says there are specific legal differences, some of which stem from the fact that manatees are marine mammals, so they are also protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. "They have specific protections as the result of being both a marine mammal and an endangered species that they would lose as a threatened marine mammal," he says.

For instance, the change would affect how much population loss caused by direct human impact is allowed. As an endangered species, only about 14 manatees are allowed to be killed each year as a result of human-related activities associated with commercial fishing. However, if the manatee is downlisted to a threatened species, about 80 of the animals will be allowed to die from these causes. "That’s an immediate direct consequence," Rose says. "Add that up, and you’ve got another 60 or 70 manatees that are allowed to die every year."

Another big impact of downlisting would likely be that more manatees would be killed by boats. In some areas, boat drivers are required to limit their speed so the slow-moving manatees have a chance to get out of the way. "Virtually every adult manatee has scars from being hit by a boat," Rose says. "We know it’s a leading cause of death. A lot of the pressure being put on the service to downlist manatees is so they can take away speed zone requirements."

Why We Need to Act Now

With all the environmental pressures on manatees, Rose says that it’s essential to act conservatively, because there’s little room to recover if delisting turns out to be a mistake. When manatees first became a protected species, their habitat was still able to support them, but that’s much less true now.

"As manatees were protected from the original cause of their depletion, which was hunting, they were able to recover, because the habitat itself was still in pretty good shape," he says. "Today if we make a mistake, the potential to make up for that mistake is nowhere near what it was before. If everything gets worse, then even if you go back and pour in 20 times the money and add more draconian regulations to protect them, you may have waited too long."

Downlisting would also affect more than just the manatee, because the protections afforded them safeguard the environment for other species. Conservationists often refer to "umbrella" or "flagship" species that have this effect on an entire ecosystem. Rose has his own term for this chunky symbol of its aquatic home: "I call them the tugboat species, because they push and pull along the protections for their whole aquatic ecosystem with them," he says.

So manatee conservation has a much bigger impact than just saving this one charismatic mammal. "There are protections and standards in place that wouldn’t be there today if it wasn’t for manatees being there as an endangered marine mammal, and they are all at risk of being pulled down along with the direct protections for manatees," Rose says. "There is something well beyond manatees at risk here."

How You Can Help

Visit to learn how you can make a difference in the future of the manatee species, or go directly to the federal eRulemaking portal to make your voice heard today.

More on