In 1973 the United States Congress passed the Endangered Species Act.  Controversial at the time, and still is today, the law was designed to help protect, and possibly restore, species that were near extinction within the boundaries of the United States.  At the time there was a lot of concern about what was happening to whale populations across the world.  These majestic creatures were being hunted by humans for food and other products.  The hunt had been going on for centuries but in the mid-20th century it moved to an industrial scale and many populations were on the verge of extinction.  The backlash from many around the world was enough for regulators in the United States to take notice. 

In the 1970s there was an estimated 1000 manatees in Florida.  These animals suffered from the increase of humans in their environment altering the habitat and literally running over them with an increase in boating traffic.  Many growing up in Pensacola at the time had never seen a brown pelican and had never heard of an osprey.  And then there was the decline of our national symbol – the bald eagle, and other national icons like the bison, bears, alligators, and moose.  The loss of wildlife was noticeable. 

At the time, if you looked at what was happening from the “30,000 foot” level, you could see the impact.  Our barriers islands, which supported dunes that reached 40-50 feet tall, were being cleared at an alarming rate.  Being replaced by large concrete structures, parking lots, and amusement parks.  This loss of habitat forced the decline of the diversity and abundance of wildlife and the carrying capacity of supported populations declined. 

If you looked seaward into the Gulf of Mexico, you saw a change from smaller boats with 75-100 horsepower motors to large vessels with up to four 350 horsepower motors on each boat.  The number of these vessels seeking fish increased from hundreds to thousands, to even tens of thousands in some locations.  Just visit one of the passes into the Gulf one weekend and you will witness the number of fishing vessels heading out.  These boats were heading to fishing sites that at one time supported a species’ carrying capacity that was high and could certainly sustain the human need for food.  Today these systems are stressed due to overharvesting. 

If you looked towards the estuary, you saw the increase growth on the island produce runoff that made the waters more turbid, creating conditions that stressed many species of fish, invertebrates, and plants.  Most notably was the loss of seagrass, which supports at least 80% of the economically important finfish and shellfish we seek.  We removed coastal salt marshes, which also support fisheries, and replaced them with piers, docks, seawalls, and manicured lawns.  These alterations again supported the decline of needed habitat and the diversity and abundance of coastal species.  Creatures that were once common in many locations like horseshoe crabs, blue crabs, and echninoderms were now hard to find in some bays.  The prized bay scallop is all but gone in many locations along with the recreational fishery that loved them. 

On the mainland side of the estuary, you find the large cities.  These are the locations that both the early European colonists and the Native Americans sought.  They were at the connection between the freshwater rivers and estuarine habitats that supported their way of life.  In the mid-20th century, these communities witnessed massive growth of humans.  These humans cleared land, built concrete buildings and roads, decreased suitable habitat for much of the life that existed there, and increased pollution in both the ground and surface waters.  Oyster beds began to decline, seagrasses that had reached the upper portions of the bay declined, and salt marshes were removed for a different sort of waterfront. 

Much of this had been noticed even in the 1960s.  The species that spawned the Endangered Species Act were mostly the large vertebrates that people felt close to, or the need for.  Species such as whales, dolphins, manatees, and sea turtles.  People were concerned about species like bison, moose, and pelicans.  But, as the draft of the law was formed, it included others that were not on their radars like alligators, frogs, and sturgeon.  The focus of the effort was the large vertebrates we were concerned about.  However, there were numerous small creatures that were being lost that became part of the movement such as river mussels, snails, even beach mice.  Then there were the numerous small creatures that will still do not know about. 

For decades scientists have written about the world of the tiny creatures that live within the sand grains, and on the surface of seagrass that play crucial roles in the over health of the ecosystem and support, directly or indirectly, the larger creatures we care about.  Even with the decision as to which species would be listed as “endangered” we saw favoritism for the large vertebrates that we appreciate.  When placed up for listing consideration species like spiders, sharks, and snakes were met with resistance.  Though their populations may have needed this protection, we did not want to protect those. 

Despite some opposition from the beginning, the Endangered Species Act has had many success stories.  Several species of whales are now stable or increasing, manatee populations have more than doubled, pelicans are common, everyone knows what an osprey is now, and viewing a bald eagle in Pensacola – though still exciting – is becoming more common place.  Another sign of success are species that have been de-listed from endangered to threatened or removed completely.  Alligators, bison, manatees, several species of sea turtles, and even the bald eagle have had this honor. 

Over the next few months, we will post articles about species that benefitted from the Endangered Species Act, and species who are still struggling and should benefit from it now.  There is no doubt that some humans suffered economically with the passing of this law, but its intent of preserving, and increasing the fish, wildlife, and even plants – that we love and need, as worked. 

Rick O'Connor
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