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Finally, Some Good News For Manatees And Green Sea Turtles

A Florida manatee cow and calf.
Keith Ramos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A Florida manatee cow and calf.

West Indian manatees and some colonies of green sea turtles have been in danger of extinction for decades.

But scientists have some good news about the much-loved sea creatures, which both have their largest U.S. populations in Florida.

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service says the West Indian manatee should be reclassified from "endangered" to the improved status of "threatened."

The agency says threats to manatees are being addressed — and they are responding with major population growth. Conservation officials say they counted only 1,267 manatees in Florida when aerial surveys began in 1991. Now, the state hosts more than 6,300 manatees. The FWS puts the total worldwide population at 13,000.

"The manatee is one of the most charismatic and instantly recognizable species," said Michael Bean, principal deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Department of the Interior in a statement. "It's hard to imagine the waters of Florida without them, but that was the reality we were facing before manatees were listed under the Endangered Species Act. While there is still more work to be done to fully recover manatee populations, their numbers are climbing and the threats to the species' survival are being reduced."

BamBam, a Florida manatee, swims in his tank alongside Betsey (left), a fully grown female, at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
John Minchillo / AP
BamBam, a Florida manatee, swims in his tank alongside Betsey (left), a fully grown female, at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens.

Now there's a 90-day comment period on the proposed change. Then FWS will review any new information and make its final decision about the manatee's status.

Federal protections and conservation efforts would not be cut off, the agency says.

Even so, the move has critics, NPR member station WLRN reports. "U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, sent a letter Thursday to the Fish and Wildlife Service asking it to withdraw the proposed status change, calling the move 'misguided and premature' and saying manatees face threats such as collisions with boats, habitat loss and red tide."

Meanwhile, 2015 has been a good year for another species in Florida — green sea turtles — as NPR reported on Morning Edition.

At The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, scientists counted 14,152 nests last year. In 2001, there were 198.

The species is generally classified as "threatened," but breeding colonies in Florida and the Pacific Coast of Mexico are listed as "endangered."

Llew Ehrhart is a professor emeritus at the University of Central Florida, and he's been working with sea turtles for more than 40 years. "By all rights, and what we know about extinction vortex, they should have just slid into oblivion— but they didn't."

"Here's one example where we took action soon enough and the species responded," Ehrhart says.

Decades-long conservation efforts are finally working, he says. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is starting to consider upgrading these green sea turtles from "endangered" to "threatened," like with the manatees.

You can listen to the full story on green sea turtles here:

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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