A conservative legal group and some north Florida business owners are asking the federal government to strip the manatee of its endangered species status.
Federal officials say they're considering doing just that, though relisting the manatee as only a threatened species would not change any of the restrictions the business owners oppose.
The Pacific Legal Foundation filed a petition Friday with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The California-based group represents Citrus County business owners who say federal boat speed restrictions harm the fishing and tourism industries on King's Bay, where manatees gather for the winter.
According to the petition, a 2007 federal review concluded that manatee population numbers had increased enough to downgrade the species from endangered to threatened. However, no action was taken. The petition says the change in the manatees' status is necessary to maintain regulatory credibility.
"We believe in protecting a sound and healthy environment, and we also believe that the federal government must follow its own rules," said Steve Lamb, vice president of Save Crystal River. "That's why we're petitioning the government to abide by its findings on the manatee."
Ultimately, the Pacific Legal Foundation would like to see the manatee removed from the list of protected species altogether, Alan DeSerio, managing attorney of the legal group's Stuart office, told the Sun Sentinel.
"Given the rebound of the manatee in Florida, eventually the population could no longer qualify for being threatened," he said.
Federal officials actually have been considering reclassifying the manatee. The process of downgrading the manatee's status to threatened will likely begin in late spring or early summer, Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Chuck Underwood told the Tampa Bay Times.
Since the 2007 review, the agency has been gathering more data to justify making the change, he said.
Still, a status change would not roll back any of the restrictions opposed by Save Crystal River, the group of Citrus County business owners, Underwood said.
"The whole reason why we would reclassify manatees is because these conservation measures are working," Underwood said.
Aerial surveys by state wildlife officials counted 4,835 manatees in January 2011. In 2010, officials counted 5,076 manatees, and in 2009 they counted 3,802.
Manatee advocates say threats to the marine mammal's survival continue, even though its population numbers appear to be increasing.
"Watercraft deaths are staying at the highest levels," said Pat Rose, a manatee biologist who is executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.
In 2011, state wildlife officials blamed extreme cold and boat collisions for many of the 440 manatee deaths confirmed that year.