ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— The Center for Biological Diversity, Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, Miami Waterkeeper, Save the Manatee Club and Frank S. González García today petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to increase protections for West Indian manatees. The petition urges the Service to reclassify the species from threatened to endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Since the Service prematurely reduced protections in 2017, the species has declined dramatically. Pollution-fueled algae blooms sparked an ongoing mortality event that killed more than 1,110 Florida manatees in 2021 alone. This represents 19% of the Atlantic population and 13% of all manatees in Florida.
The mortality event has continued apace in 2022, with 726 manatees dying through October. Manatee experts predict that the high levels of malnourished and starving manatees will continue throughout the winter.
“West Indian manatees from Florida to the Caribbean are facing drastic threats from habitat loss, boat strikes, pollution, climate change and toxic algae blooms,” said Ben Rankin, a student attorney at the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic. “The restoration of full Endangered Species Act protections is an essential first step in conserving this species everywhere it is found.”
“The current long-term threats faced by the manatee will take years or even decades of concerted action to solve,” said Savannah Bergeron, an eighth-generation Floridian and student attorney at the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic. “In the meantime, the absolute least we can do is ensure that manatees are given the protections they deserve under the Endangered Species Act, especially since they’re so important to our coastal ecosystems and are one of Florida’s iconic species.”
“With Florida’s manatees dying by the hundreds, it’s painfully clear that the 2017 federal decision to downlist the species was scientifically baseless,” said Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Fish and Wildlife Service now has the opportunity to correct its mistake and protect these desperately imperiled animals.”
“Increasing protections for manatees with an endangered listing would provide immediate protection,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper. “With astounding losses of seagrasses around the state, we need to address water-quality issues to give the manatee a fighting chance to survive and thrive.”
“In 2017 Save the Manatee Club strongly opposed the biologically unjustified downlisting of the manatee, and in the years since our worst fears have become reality as we approach what will likely be a third winter of mass manatee mortality and aquatic ecosystem collapse,” said Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of Save the Manatee Club. “Re-designating manatees as endangered will be a critical first critical step in righting a terrible wrong. In addition, we call for full implementation of all tools available under the Endangered Species Act, including reinstatement of the Expert Manatee Recovery Team and other expert working groups such as the Manatee Warm-Water Task Force. The time to act is now.”
“It fills us with emotion every time the local press publishes information about manatee sightings off the coast of Puerto Rico, even if it is to report that they appeared injured or dead. Being able to see them is an extremely rare but very special event,” said Frank S. González García, a local engineer concerned with the loss of natural resources. “The Fish and Wildlife Service could make a huge difference, enforcing protection, designating critical habitat, and making sure manatees have adequate food and freshwater resources to thrive.”
Unchecked pollution — from wastewater treatment discharges, leaking septic systems, fertilizer runoff and other sources — is fueling the collapse of the Indian River Lagoon, leading to the unprecedented mortality event. A recent study also found more than half of sampled Florida manatees are chronically exposed to glyphosate, a potent herbicide applied to sugarcane and aquatic weeds. Discharges from Lake Okeechobee containing glyphosate have also resulted in higher concentrations of glyphosate in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.
Boat strikes are another leading threat to Florida manatees. On average, more than 100 manatees are killed by boaters in Florida every year. This number is expected to increase as Florida’s population continues to expand. In response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, Florida Springs Council and Suncoast Waterkeeper, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has proposed a rule to increase boater awareness of manatees and other coastal wildlife.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days to evaluate whether the petition to protect the manatee as endangered presents substantial information to indicate that the petitioned action may be warranted. If so, the Fish and Wildlife Service must complete a thorough review of the species’ status within 12 months of receiving this petition.
Originally listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, manatees have never truly recovered. The Fish and Wildlife Service announced its final rule downlisting the West Indian manatee from endangered to threatened on March 30, 2017 — despite hundreds of manatees still dying each year from boat strikes, habitat loss and other causes.
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