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Manatees could get downgraded

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By The Staff

State and federal officials say manatee populations in Florida have grown to somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000, but that observation may see the ever-popular mammals reclassified from "endangered" to "threatened."

Recently, a conservative legal group representing business owners in Citrus County petitioned the federal government to knock the state's official marine mammal down a peg. Business owners there say the manatees' current status, which imposes restrictions such as no-wake zones in certain waterways, is bad for business.

Opponents to the reclassification say manatee numbers are not high enough to warrant such action. Plus, new studies suggest genetic diversity within current populations isn't strong enough to maintain healthy populations of manatees. Researchers also are unsure of how many of the manatees observed are actually breeding each year, and the quality of historical manatee habitats continue to go down hill, further jeopardizing manatee survival.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported 372 manatee deaths for the last year, with 80 attributed to collisions with watercraft.

That total is down from the 453 reported the year before, 88 of which were the result of watercraft collisions.