Manatee expert: Conservation efforts must continue

- Once on the verge of extinction, Florida's manatees made a comeback, and this year their status was downgraded to threatened.

But those who study the gentle giants of the ocean say it could hurt manatees' continued success.

Manatees are one of the stars of Florida's natural habitat. They draw crowds wherever they show up, but they almost disappeared more than 40 years ago. They were listed as endangered, which helped bring public awareness to the dangers manatees face from boats and water pollution.

Mote Marine Laboratory's Dr. John Reynolds has been studying manatees since 1974, when they became endangered.

"At that point, we knew very little about manatees," said Dr. Reynolds. "I knew what they were, but didn't have an appreciation for how active and how graceful and interesting they really can be." 

As he learned more about them, so did the public. Dr. Reynolds said Florida's affection for sea cows helped save them as a species.

"The public has become aware of what the manatees are and the reasons why they should be protected. I don't think the increase would ever of happened if the people of Florida had never bought into this," he said.

While the manatee status has changed, Dr. Reynolds said the conservation efforts need to continue now more than ever. He said there's still much we don't know about the manatee's habitat and other factors that affect the creatures.

"One of the biggest issues are the stresses all under control. Have they all been identified. Are they all under control? In my opinion, they are not," he said.

He points to the Indian River Lagoon, which lost more than 40 percent of it's sea grasses a few years ago.

"There have been manatee, pelican, dolphin die-offs. Some of the causes aren't even understood yet," he said.

Dr. Reynolds wrote a new book titled "Florida Manatees: Biology, Behavior and Conservation."

He said now is not the time to ease up on conservation efforts that rescued them from extinction.

"Unless people are willing to abide by the laws that are there to protect manatees, it won't happen," he said. 

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