North Florida Ecological Services Office
Southeast Region

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Position Regarding
the Release of Naïve (Long-term & Captive Born) Manatees

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) continues to endorse the release of naïve captive manatees on an individual case-by-case basis.  Naïve animals are those manatees with little or no wild experience (captive born or rescued orphans) or animals that have been held in captivity for long periods of time (greater than 10 years). 

The Service believes although naïve animals are a high risk release category, we have no scientific data that supports these animals cannot survive in the wild.  Furthermore, the Service acknowledges and understands the public and private concerns regarding release of naïve animals; however, the laws and regulations are clear that holding otherwise healthy, federally-listed species in captivity for display purposes is not allowed.

All rescued, medically treated and released manatees are part of the stranding response program implemented by the Service in 1973 and known as the Manatee Rescue, Rehabilitation and Release Program (Rescue/Rehab Program).  This program is managed by the Service and includes extensive coordination with the State of Florida and other Rescue/Rehab Program partners.  All manatees held in captivity are medically treated, monitored, and evaluated with the goal of releasing these animals and any progeny into the wild as quickly as feasible.

Release candidates are selected based on criteria developed by Rescue/Rehab Program partners.  Early program emphasis was on short-term, wild born adults and progressed to animals that were housed greater than one year and less than 10 years in captivity.  In 2002 the Service revised their release preparation protocol and monitoring plan, and began releasing manatees that were captive born, held in captivity for greater than 10 years, and individuals rescued as orphans. 

Currently there are 15 naïve manatees that have been in captivity for over 10 years awaiting release; of these, six are captive born.   Manatees are long-lived marine mammals; therefore, if a release is successful, these animals may spend the greater part of their adult life in the wild and contribute to the existing population. 

Additionally, a pre-release plan and monitoring plan is in place for each naïve animal that is to be released within the program.  These plans are developed and implemented as a collaborative effort involving the Service and its partners within the Rescue/Rehab Program.   Pre-release preparation, monitoring and eventual animal outcomes are reviewed for each naïve animal that is released; this is a crucial step in evaluating program efforts and success, providing guidance for future releases, and determining the viability and adaptability of naïve animals released into the wild.   

Therefore, it remains the Service’s position that making a determination that animals are non-releasable based solely on their length of time in captivity or birth status is unfounded; at least until sufficient scientific data on manatee adaptability proves otherwise.

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Last updated: February 7, 2018