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Of Manatees and Mandates: Celebrating Endangered Species Day

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As a little girl, I really liked marine mammals, especially seals and manatees. They fascinated me. I learned all about them and their habitats. I knew the anatomical differences between a seal and a sea lion and I could describe the eating and migration patterns of manatees. I knew which species were endangered and which human activities threatened them. As an adult, I have almost certainly lost much of this detailed knowledge I had as a nine-year old. Nevertheless, I remain fascinated by them and continue to be concerned about their survival.

I took this photo of a West Indian Manatee in the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge Area, a protected area for the endangered species who uses its spring-fed waters to stay warm in the winter.

I took this photo of a West Indian Manatee in the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge Area, a protected area for the endangered species who uses its spring-fed waters to stay warm in the winter.

With my long history of interest in manatees, you can imagine my excitement when I got the opportunity to swim with them in the wild. Though the West Indian Manatee is endangered and thus there are strict rules preventing people from disrupting them in their habitat, there are rare areas where the public can passively observe them in the water under supervision.

After arriving in Crystal River, Florida, and watching a video clarifying what to do and not do when you are in the water with manatees, I dived in with my snorkel gear to see the sea cows. Watching them move in the water, seeing their faces stare at mine, and observing them in their own habitat was an experience like no other. I saw their impressive size, their docile nature, and the toughness of their skin. I even saw some animals with scars on their backs from past encounters with speed boats.

Species have rights: The significance of the Endangered Species Act

Tomorrow is Endangered Species Day and I want to take a moment to appreciate efforts like these to preserve threatened species in the U.S. I was grateful to have had this experience and I know that it was only possible because of the ongoing conservation efforts of those at Crystal River, in the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service at-large, and elsewhere.

The Endangered Species Act allows for federal protections that limit human impacts to species and their habitats and help species recover.

The Endangered Species Act allows for federal protections that limit human impacts to species and their habitats and help species recover.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed by Congress in 1973 after President Nixon recognized the need for legislation to prevent the extinction of species. The law and its predecessors were the first major recognition by the U.S. government that species have rights. What made the law so significant was its reliance on science to determine if species were threatened and its mandate that efforts be made to protect threatened species and their habitats independent of economic or political considerations. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld this mandate in 1978 when it declared that the intent of the law was “to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost.”

Since its enactment more than 40 years ago, the law has seen several success stories—species for which we’ve stopped population declines and even recovered populations. My colleague Deborah wrote about how the law has helped several such species—the bald eagle and the southern sea otter—and the post details how we should define success when it comes to the Endangered Species Act.

Political interference in endangered species listings

But the law, unfortunately, is not without challenges. The inclusion of species on the endangered species list has often become a political issue. In many cases, the economic and political implications of species’ listings have led the science to be compromised. Sometimes, these attacks come from Congress, with members seeking to weaken the act in the name of reducing economic impacts of species protection. Other times, attempts to undermine the act stem from political sensitivities around a species, like in the cases of wolves, sage grouse, and right whales. Sometimes the cases involve scientific misconduct issues, such as in the cases of freshwater mussels and American burying beetles.

Researchers study manatees to get a sense of their population and what factors might threaten their survival. The science that goes into ESA decision making is peer-reviewed by federal agency scientists and by external scientists.

Researchers study manatees to get a sense of their population and what factors might threaten their survival. The science that goes into ESA decision making is peer-reviewed by federal agency scientists and by external scientists.

Currently, two bills under consideration in the House of Representatives threaten to undermine the ESA. H.R. 4315, the 21st Century Endangered Species Transparency Act and H.R. 4317, State, Tribal, and Local Species Transparency Act, would place a crippling burden on the agencies that administer the ESA. The bill’s authors claim that the bills would promote use of the best available science in endangered species listing decisions; however, the bills would place unnecessary demands on federal agencies to release data and inhibit their ability to carry out the ESA mandates.

The ESA already demands use of the best available science including the use of peer-reviewed scientific studies. The bills also could have chilling effects on scientists who participate in the process of evaluating and listing species, as the bills may require that scientists release data—before they have the opportunity publish or despite confidentiality agreements they may have with landowners. UCS, along with other members of the Endangered Species Coalition, will continue to speak in opposition to these bills.

Because attacks like these continue to happen, it is essential that we work to preserve the Endangered Species Act (along with implementing strong federal agency scientific integrity policies). To effectively protect species, we need to ensure that we have a science-based process for identifying which species need to be listed and how threatened plants and animals should be protected.

Protecting Species, Preserving Processes

This is the manatee calf I encountered in Crystal River, Florida. Also displayed is my poor camera aim.

This is the manatee calf I encountered in Crystal River, Florida. Also displayed is my poor camera aim.

When I was in the water at Crystal River, I encountered a manatee calf all by himself. He looked at me and I looked at him. We sat suspended in the otherwise silent water. At that moment, I couldn’t help but think of what my nine-year-old self would feel if she was given this opportunity. I know she would want us to do everything we can to protect this manatee and others. She would want us to help ensure that future generations could have this experience and that the species could survive and thrive in these warm Florida waters. As an adult, I carry her wishes with me and I know science has and can continue to help us protect our endangered species.

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , , ,

About the author: Gretchen Goldman is a lead analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. She holds a PhD and MS in environmental engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a BS in atmospheric science from Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at @GretchenTG. See Gretchen's full bio.

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