MIAMI – As they do whenever they visit Florida, Greg Groff and his young daughter stopped by the manatee pool at Miami Seaquarium, where the speed bump-shaped marine mammals placidly swim in circles.
They noted the pink scars and disfigured tail on one manatee, damage from a boat propeller that left it unable to survive in the wild.
Florida's manatees need even more stringent protections than their listing on the federal endangered species list, Groff said, adding that boaters should go elsewhere if they don't like speed limits in waters where manatees swim.
"There's plenty of places they can go faster," the Chicago man said. "They can go out in the middle of the ocean if they want to go much, much, much quicker, and you won't have to worry about them running the manatees over."
Groff's comments are representative of the environmentalist and general public side of an ongoing fight with a group of boaters, businesses and conservatives over whether the manatee should retain its 1967 federal listing as an endangered species, the most protective classification.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing whether the manatee should be reclassified as a "threatened" species, which would allow some flexibility for federal officials as the species recovers while maintaining most of the protections afforded to animals listed as endangered.
As part of the lengthy review process, the agency is seeking public comment on its finding that a petition to reclassify the manatee has merits. The deadline is Tuesday. A decision on whether a change is warranted won't be made until the agency completes its review, which could take a year.
Manatees, also known as sea cows, are vegetarian giants that average nearly 10 feet long and 2,200 pounds and live near the shore and in coastal waterways around much of Florida. The animal's biggest threats are boats, cold water, toxic algae blooms and fishing debris like discarded lines and ropes.
"If we come to the end of this and decide reclassification is warranted, it's good news because it means the manatee is recovering and no longer on the brink of extinction," agency spokesman Chuck Underwood said.
Critics of the manatee's current endangered listing say manatees are important to the state's tourism industry and environment, so everyone wants them to thrive, but the species has recovered sufficiently over the last 47 years to be reclassified. Florida's manatee population has grown from several hundred in 1967 to over 4,800 in this year. Under current regulations, boaters must avoid manatee areas or obey tight speed limits and fishermen can't use some equipment.
Save Crystal River Inc. and the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation petitioned the government in 2012 to reclassify the manatee, citing a 2007 federal review that recommended listing the species as threatened since the population is recovering. They say if the federal government followed its own rules, the reclassification should be automatic.
"The truth is the manatee is protected the same as threatened as endangered, but they no longer can use the species to take over sovereign lands and sovereign waters with arbitrary rules," said Steve Lamb, vice president of Save Crystal River, a group that represents about 100 members that include recreational boaters, tour operators, dive shops and hotels. The river, about 80 miles north of Tampa on Florida's Gulf Coast, is warmed by natural springs and is a favorite winter congregating spot for manatees.
According to the wildlife service, officials began working on the reclassification proposal in 2013, but those efforts were suspended amid funding constraints, the U.S. government shutdown and concerns over recent spikes in manatee deaths, particularly during cold snaps. A record 829 manatees died last year, breaking the 2010 record of 766, according to state records.
The most worrisome deaths last year were not collisions with boats. A record 276 manatee deaths were caused by a toxic red tide bloom in the Gulf of Mexico. There were also the unexplained deaths of more than 100 manatees on Florida's east coast, where pollution and algae blooms have plagued a vital lagoon ecosystem.
Save the Manatees Club Executive Director Pat Rose said that while the species has certainly rebounded, the jump in deaths, particularly during cold snaps, means more work is needed before they lose endangered status.
"The most compelling reason not to down-list them is the status of their ecosystems," Rose said. "If you maintain good quality habitat, you can overcome catastrophic mortality events. If you are dealing with both catastrophic mortality events and unrelenting compromises to their aquatic ecosystems at the same time, that's when you need to be acting very conservatively."
But Lamb says the government is bowing to political pressure and emotion, highlighting conservation efforts at the expense of the law and business.
"Does anyone ever want to talk about how last year 1,000 manatees were born? Heck, no. All they want to talk about is how many died," Lamb said.
The vast majority of comments submitted to the wildlife service plead with officials to continue listing the manatee as endangered. Florida residents cite the manatees they've seen with scars from run-ins with boats or fishing debris, while out-of-state commenters describe the thrill of spotting the unique marine mammals in the water.
Some say the manatee should be protected as a symbol, not just as an animal.
"In a world filled with war, deadly viruses, and everyday violence ... the gentle manatee offers a vision of peaceful existence all would like to possess," wrote one commenter.