The Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is an endangered marine mammal endemic to the southeastern United States. The primary threats to manatee populations are collisions with watercraft and the potential loss of warm-water refuges. For the purposes of listing, recovery, and regulation under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), an understanding of the relative effects of the principal threats is needed. This work is a quantitative approach to threats analysis, grounded in the assumption that an appropriate measure of status under the ESA is based on the risk of extinction, as quantified by the probability of quasi-extinction. This is related to the qualitative threats analyses that are more common under the ESA, but provides an additional level of rigor, objectivity, and integration. In this approach, our philosophy is that analysis of the five threat factors described in Section 4(a)(1) of the ESA can be undertaken within an integrated quantitative framework.
The basis of this threats analysis is a comparative population viability analysis. This involves forecasting the Florida manatee population under different scenarios regarding the presence of threats, while accounting for process variation (environmental, demographic, and catastrophic stochasticity) as well as parametric and structural uncertainty. We used the manatee core biological model (CBM) for this viability analysis, and considered the role of five threats: watercraft-related mortality, loss of warm-water habitat in winter, mortality in water-control structures, entanglement, and red tide. All scenarios were run with an underlying parallel structure that allowed a more powerful estimation of the effects of the various threats. The results reflect our understanding of manatee ecology (as captured in the structure of the CBM), our estimates of manatee demography (as described by the parameters in the model), and our characterization of the mechanisms by which the threats act on manatees.
As an example of the type of results generated, we estimated that the probability of the manatee population falling to less than 250 adults on either the Atlantic or Gulf coasts (from a current statewide population size of near 3300) within 100 years is 8.6%. Complete removal of the watercraft threat alone would reduce this risk to 0.4%; complete removal of the warm-water threat to 4.2%; removal of both threats would reduce the risk to 0.1%. The modeling approach we have taken also allows us to consider partial removal of threats, as well as removal of multiple threats simultaneously.
We believe the measure we have proposed (probability of quasi-extinction over y years, with quasi-extinction defined as dropping below a threshold of z on either coast) is a suitable measure of status that integrates a number of the elements that are relevant to interpretation under the ESA (it directly integrates risk of extinction and reduction of range, and indirectly integrates loss of genetic diversity). But the identification of the time frame of interest and the tolerable risk of quasi-extinction are policy decisions, and an ecology-based quasi-extinction threshold has not yet been determined. We have endeavored to provide results over a wide range of these parameters to give decision-makers useful information to assess status.
This assessment of threats suggests that watercraft-related mortality is having the greatest impact on manatee population growth and resilience. Elimination of this single threat would greatly reduce the probability of quasi-extinction. Loss of warm-water is also a significant threat, particularly over the long-term. Red tide and entanglement, while noticeable threats, have had less of an impact on the manatee population. The effect of water control structures may have already been largely mitigated. We did not, however, consider an exhaustive list of threats. Other threats (e.g., reduction of food resources due to storms and development) may play a