ORLANDO — A dispute more than a decade in the making over whether Florida's manatees should still be considered "endangered" continued Saturday in a hotel ballroom in Orlando.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sponsored its one and only public hearing on changing their status from endangered to threatened after 49 years, drawing more than 100 people, of whom 53 rose to speak.
By a wide margin, the crowd opposed the change. Pat Rose of the Save the Manatee Club said his group brought about 70 people, many of them wearing buttons featuring a picture of a manatee and the slogan "Secure Their Future."
There also was a vocal contingent present from Save Crystal River, the group whose lawsuit pushed the federal agency to propose changing the manatees' status.
"The evidence is overwhelming" that manatees are no longer an endangered species, said Save Crystal River president Lisa Moore, a fourth-generation Floridian who runs a small business and emphasized the middle-class nature of her group.
She pointed to the increase in the manatee population, which she said fuels a fear that they're eating too much of the sea grass in Kings Bay.
The 2½-hour hearing featured impassioned speeches — including one from a 10-year-old girl — and snarky comments and repeated disagreements over what's more important: the number of live manatees or the number of dead ones.
Federal biologist Jim Valade said at the beginning of the hearing that the agency now believes manatees no longer fit the definition of endangered. "Endangered" means on the brink of extinction, he explained, while "threatened" means facing serious threats but not about to disappear any time soon.
Valade said the agency has calculated there are now more than 6,000 manatees in Florida, far more than in the past 20 years — although no one knows how many there were in 1967, when they were put on the government's original endangered species list along with the Florida panther and the Key deer.
Meanwhile, Valade noted, the most recent U.S. Geologic Survey computer model shows the Florida manatee population has a less than 2.5 percent chance of falling below 4,000 over the next 100 years, "assuming current threats remain constant."
Many critics of the proposal focused on that last line, noting that a swelling human population in Florida — now the nation's third most populous state — and increasing tourism means there will be a boom in the threats to manatees. Specifically, they talked about more boats zooming along and hitting manatees, and more development in the manatees' coastal habitat.
"The manatee is not the issue — it's the people," said Capt. Arthur Eikenberg of New Port Richey, one of those opposing the change. "We don't seem to be able to coexist with anything in nature."
Critics also pointed out that the computer model does not take into account the loss of coastal habitat, which Valade acknowledged is the greatest threat in the manatees' future. Nor did it include massive manatee die-offs from cold stress and Red Tide algae blooms, although the scientist in charge of the modeling, Michael Runge, said he is updating the model to include those figures.
They noted a recent increase in the number hit by boats. Ten-year-old Megan Sorbo of Orlando, who brought a pink stool with her so she would be tall enough to reach the microphone, told agency officials that a boat hitting a manatee has an impact "like a human getting hit by a bus."
Boating advocates and development interests have been trying since 1999 to knock manatees down a notch on the endangered list in the hope that it would roll back the speed zones and other regulations imposed in the name of their protection. Failing that, they wanted to make sure no new ones were added.
Although Valade and field supervisor Larry Williams repeatedly assured the crowd that a change in status would bring no change in existing protections for manatees, many of the people opposed to the change said they did not believe it. They noted ongoing efforts on both the state and county level to eliminate or alter existing speed zones — the very measures credited with the increase in the population.
"I used to work for the Legislature," said Jennifer Marquez of Winter Park. "I don't trust the Legislature to do the right thing on animal-related issues."
The federal agency has already received 930 written comments on its proposal and will continue taking those until April 7. Then, agency officials will have to decide which side to please and which one to anger.
Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.